It’s no secret that soft skills are anything but “soft” in today’s business world. Soft skills include the array of intangible skills employees possess that inform how they do and understand their jobs. Without them, businesses would crumble, because people would have a hard time working together and understanding the purpose behind their roles.
It’s especially important for leaders to have sharply honed soft skills, because their roles require them to work with many different people in various capacities. Leaders need to be able to inspire, influence, direct and motivate. This blog explores the ways soft skills benefit leaders and which skills are most essential in order for them to execute these functions well.
Why Soft Skills are Essential to Leadership
To put it frankly, a leader probably won’t last long in their role if they aren’t actively and continually working on developing their leadership soft skills. The job market only continues to get more competitive, and the most attractive employees are currently those with strong interpersonal skills, and knowledge of how to build employee morale through actions and words.
Soft skills can be broken down into the following main categories:
- Analytical and problem-solving
- Conflict resolution
- Empathy and emotional intelligence
- Adaptability and planning
Leaders are also responsible for retaining and attracting top talent on their teams, and they can’t do this without strong soft skills in negotiation, ability to mentor and teach, clear communication standards, and positive team building skills.
Given that development and growth is so important to most employees, it’s necessary for leaders to recognize that and meet employee demands, especially as millennials and Generation Z begins to take over the workforce, highlighting values such as recognition, flexibility and structured feedback.
Where to Start
We’ve gone over some of the main categories of soft skills that are important along with why it’s crucial for managers to develop strong leadership soft skills, but you may be wondering how you could possibly even begin working on soft skills, with so many important facets of developing this side of your leadership abilities. We’ve identified five of the most powerful soft skills based on current trends and research that will give you a targeted place to start.
1. Creative Problem Solving
It’s not enough to just be creative or have a few tried and true problem-solving routines that worked well in the past. A truly outstanding leader will be able to combine their creativity and their problem-solving acumen to stand out. Being able to lean on transparency, strategic vision and open-minded styles of approaching conflict helps management remain reliable and competent in times of crisis and/or change.
Creating a framework based on carefully crafted strategy for when a problem comes up and using empathy to guide how you implement your problem-solving framework is a great way to continually hone this skill.
You can improve your creative problem solving skills by practicing self-awareness and using empathy to understand how problems affect your team, your clients or your business.
2. Adaptability & Flexibility
With all the uncertainty over the past year, organizations that didn’t have teams of adaptable and flexible leaders either fell apart or suffered losses. Even before the pandemic, with the rapid rise of technological advancements in the business world, those who weren’t constantly practicing new ways to remain adaptable and flexible in the face of unexpected changes quickly fell behind.
Adaptability is widely regarded as one of the primary competitive advantages for leaders, and it includes being able to ask timely and novel questions about how current systems are running and will continue to run in the face of change. Those who are adaptable respond quickly to the first detection of change. Flexibility ties in with adaptability as the ability to see alternate paths forward in the face of a challenge. Together, this creates a dynamic soft skill that is absolutely essential for today’s leaders.
Enhancing one’s flexibility and adaptability involves practicing routine self check-ins during which an individual takes time to brain map, journal, word dump, etc. to fully assess the thoughts and feelings behind a situation.
3. Emotional Intelligence
Because of the pandemic, you’ve probably heard more about emotional intelligence this year than ever before. This is because the leaders who helped guide their teams through crisis did so by identifying, naming and responding to the range of emotions that came up, both within themselves and amongst their teams.
Having a high emotional intelligence means that an individual is able to name and understand complex emotions both within themselves and their peers. It also helps leaders motivate their teams, support them in both challenging and uplifting situations, guide employees to make choices that protect their health and wellness, protect their own boundaries, and keep themselves balanced mentally and emotionally so that they can continue to show up as the best versions of themselves.
Developing emotional intelligence can be challenging, but a good way to practice this is to begin routinely naming the emotions you feel. From there, you can begin practicing naming emotions in others and putting yourself in their shoes during conflict.
Being able to connect with people in a way that encourages feedback and active participation is not an inherent skill that many people possess. However, it can be worked on. Sharing responsibilities, ideas, brainstorming experiences and creating a positive company culture can have a much further reach in the business world than many leaders expect.
Working as a team in a way that leaves communication channels open for all voices to be heard is rare in the corporate world, so organizations that are known for doing this well attract top talent and are able to retain top-performing employees. Collaboration of leaders across departments can improve overall functioning of a business, and leaders knowing how to invite collaboration amongst employees in a way that breaks down hierarchies opens up avenues for the truly creative employees, regardless of position, to contribute positively towards shared goals.
Collaboration is best enhanced when leaders model positive and effective channels of communication and feedback. Allow your direct reports to share feedback openly and honestly with you, and they’ll be more accepting when you provide feedback for them. This will carry into the organization at large as people naturally use great collaborative skills with one another thanks to your effective modeling.
Storytelling is often an undervalued soft skill in leadership, but it sure is mighty. This is a tradition as old as time that has been used to teach, connect, and establish cultural and societal precedents.
Leaders who have strong soft skills but who don’t understand the power of storytelling to enhance these skills will miss out on opportunities to connect with peers, clients, business connections, etc. Storytelling can be a great way to engage people in a way that invites ease of communication. Done skillfully, storytelling helps managers to be more effective with persuasion, influence, establishing strong connections and enhancing empathy.
If you’re wondering how to bring storytelling into your current role more deliberately, start by working it into small talk. Strategically tell a peer about your weekend activities and how you learned something from what you did that will help you at work. The more natural this becomes for you, the more you can work this into how to communicate about what you do at work and how that informs your future projects.
Developing Your Leadership Soft Skills
The most important thing to keep in mind when thinking about leadership soft skills is that none of us were born knowing how to do any of these things. If you are someone who is not naturally skilled in some of these areas, keep in mind that, like any other skill, soft skills can be practiced and honed with hard work and dedication. A
All leaders should continue to work on developing a strong arsenal of soft skills. You probably learned how to ride a bike, throw a football, etc. and got better at those things with time. The same is true for your leadership abilities. When you take the time to develop these essential skills, your team will thank you and you’ll watch your career evolve to impressive new levels.