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The importance of soft skills in leadership


Leaders don't need to worry about soft skills, right? Wrong. Fiona Lander elaborates.

Technical know-how is all well and good, but it is emotional intelligence and self-awareness that will differentiate traditional managers from the star leaders of tomorrow.

In recent years, there has been an influx of new leadership development methods; and it is no coincidence that almost all focus on the growing recognition of the importance of a manager’s emotional resonance with others.

There is no doubt that professional competency and business acumen are absolutely essential for effective leadership, but relevant soft skills may be an even more important attribute amongst managers. The ability for a manager to communicate effectively with their team has a direct impact on their organisation's bottom line. In fact, according to employee engagement expert David McLeod, engaged staff deliver 50% higher customer loyalty, 50% higher sales, and 27% higher profits – all figures any company owner would find attractive.

Something which is rarely discussed is the fact that not every professional has the innate soft skills that are necessary to become a great leader. Within the recruitment industry, for example, there is a tendency for organisations to promote the big-billers on their teams into management positions, in order to retain their star talent - despite the fact that these individuals may not all be cut out for a leadership role. They may not be ready for, or even equipped with, the right skills for such a role. Consequently, the impact this can have on the teams around them can be counter-intuitive.

"The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods can be honed through direction and practice."

As a professional trainer I have come to realise that although personality cannot be taught, effective training and development can indeed help professionals to recognise and understand their own moods, emotions and drives – and more importantly, the effect they have on others. The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods can be honed through direction and practice, and professionals should not underestimate the value that becoming more self-aware can bring. 

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, the five abilities that distinguish the best leaders from the average ones are: 

  • self-awareness
  • self-regulation
  • motivation
  • empathy
  • social skills

Gone are the days when ‘lone-wolf’ leadership styles were tolerated and even celebrated. In my experience, today’s effective managers must now exude positive energy, define vision, build great teams, care, reward, teach, decide, innovate and execute.

According to Moya Rylands [LINKED IN], self-belief is also key to professional success; "Belief allows us all to access skills that otherwise we can understand but cannot use. It helps us develop resilience against the inevitable knocks, so we have the confidence to get back up and try again”.

The paper, Leadership Development: Past, Present & Future (Buckingham & Vosburgh 2003), highlights the fact that we should concentrate on peoples’ strengths and natural talents rather than a ‘reductionist list of idiosyncratic competencies’. By nurturing abilities that already exist within our teams, we can capitalise on these ever-more-important soft skills.   

Essentially, through training and development, we can help to create emotionally intelligent leaders who effectively engage with their workforces and lead by example.

Fiona Lander is head of professional development at APSCo. She has over 20 years’ experience in executive coaching and speaking publically on the changing face of leadership

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