Today, emerging leaders will likely have a college degree, technical qualifications (making them theoretically competent to perform the tasks required of them), and relevant work experience—but what about the personal attributes that enable leaders to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, or what we sometimes refer to as “soft skills”?
The word “soft,” in this context, introduces a spectrum of connotations. Where skills or competencies are concerned, it is juxtaposed to “hard.” The implication is that hard skills are somehow substantial, while soft skills are somewhat ethereal. Some might believe that acquiring soft skills is less demanding than the rigor necessary to develop hard skills, basing this assumption on popular notions of the sciences—empirical, measurable, practical—as opposed to the humanities—intuitive, indefinite, and valued as intrinsically good rather than instrumentally so.
Rather than calling them “soft skills,” and perhaps thereby implying they are less important, I propose that we think of them simply as essential leadership skills. In actuality, it is the technical or “hard skills” that are non-essential. In leadership, one can easily find people who can do the technical things, but communication, motivation, social adeptness, vision—indispensable skills for leaders—are harder to come by. Hard skills are less important as one assumes more responsibility as a leader; but so-called “soft skills” are the sine qua non for effective leadership. They are truly essential.
Today’s emerging leaders must display innovative, cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills in the broadest possible sense. Interpersonal and relationship-building skills help people communicate and collaborate effectively. Unfortunately, such skills are often overlooked and undervalued by today’s students, faculty, and administrators.
What are these leadership skills and why are they so critical? These essential skills include:
Acting as a team player
Problem solving and critical thinking
Accepting feedback and applying lessons learned
These are skills that will help anyone in a wide range of jobs, not just a current or target position.
It’s true that, to get and keep a job, one must be competent in certain technical skills. However, given the same technical skills and level of competence, what is the primary reason one person is chosen over another for promotion and advancement? While technical skills and competency might get one’s foot in the door, essential leadership skills push that door open wide. One mistake that should not be overlooked is the assumption these essential skills are easily mastered. The sad fact is that many people never become competent in these interpersonal abilities and never fulfill their potential.
Today’s work environment has evolved to the point where the interpersonal dynamic no longer can be ignored. The acts of listening, presenting ideas, resolving conflict, and fostering an open and honest culture all come down to knowing how to build and maintain relationships with people. It’s those relationships that allow people to participate fully in team projects, show appreciation for others, and enlist support for their projects—that, ultimately, make them effective team members and effective leaders.
Marcia M. Ditmyer, PhD, MS, MBA, MCHES
AAL Senior Consultant