Effective leaders of groups, teams, and organizations typically rely on a diverse collection of “soft skills” they’ve picked up over their careers that help them manage projects successfully, inspire those around them, and navigate tough decision-making situations with empathy and poise.
Soft skills are a class of traits or characteristics that help you work, manage, and live alongside others in a harmonious manner, such as adaptability, honest communication, and problem-solving. A hard skill, by contrast, is something learned through experience or education, such as how to work a project management software tool or design a website.
In this guide, we’ve got the lowdown on precisely why soft skills are important for leadership, the key soft skills to know, and how to develop them. All in all, we cover:
Soft skills are sometimes called “transferable” skills, because they’re a class of interaction-focused class of traits that can generally be applied to any workplace, in any sector of any industry.
You might also see them called “non-technical” skills because they aren’t generally skills you can get a qualification to prove you have, such as being an empathetic manager.
Soft skills can’t be proved out by qualifications and are instead skills you accrue over time by working in different environments with different people and taking on feedback as and when it is provided to you.
Hard Skills Vs Soft Skills: The Difference
Understanding soft skills is much easier if you look at them with one eye on hard skills. Hard skills are important too, but very different from soft skills. Here are the key distinctions between the two different classes of personal attributes:
- Hard skills are learned through education, soft skills through experience
- You can get qualifications to prove hard skills, but not soft skills
- Hard skills require specialized knowledge, whereas soft skills are broader
- Hard skills can be useless if you move industry, but soft skills can be applied everywhere
- Learning hard skills is often a conscious decision, soft skills develop naturally
To be an effective leader, you’ll need a mixture of both hard and soft skills. Hard skills – such as being a whizz at the software your whole team uses – ensure you’ll understand staff members' technical issues and needs. Soft skills will help you inspire, motivate, and communicate with them effectively.
Why are Soft Skills Important for Leadership?
As we’ve alluded to in the paragraph above, you need soft skills and hard skills to be a successful leader – although most common leadership traits are considered soft skills.
You can have as many qualifications as you like, but if you can’t empathize with your colleagues, adapt quickly to change, solve problems, or inspire your team to succeed, you aren’t going to get anywhere.
Interpersonal soft skills like knowing how to effectively communicate in a workplace are incredibly important to leadership because they help build relationships. If you don’t make an effort with your team – and they feel like you don’t enjoy working with nor respect them – achieving anything at all is going to be an uphill struggle.
Soft skills also inspire confidence. Looking and sounding like you know what you’re doing is very important in the average business setting. For example, being able to stand up and speak confidently about your ideas and vision to a room full of people – a classic soft skill – will help you get buy-in on what you want to do.
Other soft skills are crucial to making good decisions, and in turn, being trusted in positions of power or influence. Any leader may need buy-in from their team and wider company leadership to make a big decision, so will need to be adept at negotiation and interpersonal conflict resolution to ensure everyone feels like they have a voice.
7 Key Leadership Soft Skills to Know
Now it’s time for a closer look at the top leadership soft skills that you should know, whether you’re approaching a leadership position at work or already occupying one. Here’s a summary of what we cover:
- Communication: Being Honest and Clear
- Problem-Solving: Working Through Adversity
- Charisma: The Ability to Inspire
- Positivity: Being Mindful of Your Mindset
- Delegation: Knowing When to Let Go
- Negotiation: Being Able to Resolve Conflicts
- Empathy: The Ability to Understand
Communication: being honest and clear
Communication is a leadership and project management skill that underpins pretty much every other soft skill you can think of. For example, you can’t negotiate, delegate, or even properly empathize with your team if you aren’t a skilled communicator.
More than 40% of workers say that poor communication reduces their trust in leadership, so being able to get your message across properly is vital.
Leaving your employees feeling blindsided by big decisions will brew resentment, so you must always take steps to pass on important information when you can. This is particularly important during transitional periods when redundancies and layoffs will likely occur.
Positivity: being mindful of your mindset
In a related way, knowing how to stay positive in times of adversity has a reassuring trickle-down effect when displayed by leaders. Being mindful of the power your mood can have on the whole team – and remaining upbeat – is a key attribute good leaders have.
Positive leadership can have a significant impact on commonly desired organizational outcomes like high employee job satisfaction and retention rates. It'll make the environment your colleagues work in – and the time they spend with you – a much more pleasant experience. Remember, it doesn't cost anything to ask how someone's day was, or to take a second to praise someone for the work they've done.
Of course, positivity has its limits, and shouldn’t be used as a way to avoid addressing issues head-on or being completely honest with your team – but it’s an important skill to have if you want your team to give it their all from the moment they clock in.
Problem-solving: working through adversity
Being able to break down problems in your head easily and work calmly through an assessment of the different ways to solve them is an analytical skill you can apply to any leadership position. It'll help you with everything from major disagreements about strategy to managing budgets during complex projects.
While you may need industry-specific knowledge you’ve gained through education, training courses, and experiences to solve any given problem in your line of work, processes, and methods involved in problem-solving are transferrable skills you can use in other roles. These soft skills are about how you approach and think about problems.
Being able to identify the true root of a problem and sufficiently consider a range of solutions and their subsequent consequences is a crucial soft skill. This takes patience and ingenuity, especially when the problem directly affects your bottom line.
Are you thinking clearly and objectively about the problem? What obstacles lie in your way to solving it? Who does it impact, what help or support will you need from others, and how should you communicate your strategy to the rest of your company or department?
These questions will come naturally to leaders who’ve learned from problems they’ve encountered. What’s more, successful leaders won’t panic if something goes wrong – they may not even provide a solution straight away.
Listening to people around you, collecting your thoughts, and coming up with a comprehensive solution is a better option than scrambling for a quick fix – and going through that process is a big part of problem-solving.
Charisma: the ability to inspire
Being able to inspire people is crucial to any leadership role, and being charismatic is a key element to this. It’ll help you tap into your team’s emotions directly, creating the sorts of moments of connection that tend to motivate people to action.
If your workforce doesn’t buy into your vision, they’re not going to be motivated to work for you or towards the goals you’ve set for your company or department. Involving them more deeply in any project’s potential success will lead to a more committed, synergistic team.
While lots of things inspire or reassure people – such as having a good, clear plan – being able to convey your vision in an exciting, charismatic way will get people up in the morning.
While being charismatic is important, this kind of inspirational soft skill shouldn’t be taken as a license to overpromise things you know you can’t deliver, just because it is motivating. Being a charismatic motivator must be balanced out with honesty and respect for your employees.
Delegation: knowing when to let go
Delegation is a skill that’s quite specific to leadership roles, but as with all leadership soft skills, will help you out in almost any management position.
Knowing how to delegate tasks effectively will ensure the people you manage have an opportunity to learn and grow at your business, and perhaps most importantly, show them that you think they’re capable, and trust them.
Resisting the urge to take full control because you want a task completed in a very specific way – and recognizing that you can use it as an opportunity to benefit someone else – is an excellent soft skill to have.
Negotiation: being able to resolve conflicts
It’s a simple fact of life that conflicts and disagreements on what pathways to take occur in teams – especially high-performing ones. Therefore, being a good negotiator is a key leadership skill.
Effective negotiation skills allow leaders to address and resolve conflicts by finding mutually agreeable solutions. This is vital to maintaining positive working relationships.
Good negotiators will tend to make it clear that they’re trying to reach outcomes that benefit all parties involved and will be keen to explore area where compromise is possible. To reach a desired goal, you simply have to bring everyone on board, or you’ll all be pulling in different directions from the get-go.
Good negotiation requires the ability to think on one's feet. Patience is also required, as is the ability to tell people when and why you disagree with them in a kind, professional manner.
Empathy: The ability to understand
In your working life, you’re going to likely work with people from a variety of backgrounds and upbringings who will have very different life experiences. They may experience obstacles and issues in their career that you simply won’t, and you can’t change that.
Making no effort to appreciate these differences and approaching workplace situations without this in mind isn’t going to motivate anyone on your team to work towards the goal you've set for them. Plus, when it comes around to your turn to face adversity or make a difficult decision, you'd want them to make the same effort to understand where you're coming from.
Most people are pretty good at picking up on when someone is actively making an effort to understand their point of view. It’s hard to follow – and trust – someone who doesn’t seem to understand how their actions or decisions impact other people.
How to Develop Leadership Soft Skills
If you feel like you don’t have many soft skills, don’t worry – there are plenty of ways that you can develop them inside and outside of work, and you won't necessarily have to pay for a course or gain a qualification to do so.
Ask for feedback: It’s obvious if you’re not technically qualified for something – but soft skills can be a little more complex. If you’re managed or supervised by someone you trust and work well with, you can ask them for honest feedback on where you need to improve.
Take opportunities: You’re probably not going to suddenly be asked to head up your department or company tomorrow – but you might be asked to take the lead on a project, organize a social activity or provide an update to the board. These are all excellent but low-risk opportunities to improve specific soft skills, so must be taken.
Find a role model: Know someone in your workplace who makes big decisions and gets lots of stuff done while remaining well-liked and pleasant to work with? Well, it’s time to start observing their behavior and taking some mental notes. How do they keep meetings on track? How do they communicate with people they manage? What example do they set? Sometimes, simply observing and then trying it out yourself is the quickest way to learn.
Pick up a hobby: Developing your soft skills isn’t an activity that has to stay within the confines of the office. A lot of popular hobbies and extra-curricular activities can enrich participants’ soft skills. For instance, while martial arts have very little to do with business in a technical sense, understanding discipline, making quick decisions, and staying calm under pressure are skills that can be easily transferred from the dojo to your department.
Leadership Soft Skills Case Studies
Now, it’s time to hear from some seasoned managers currently occupying key decision-making positions, and how developing soft skills has helped them to be a successful team leader.
“Soft skills are all too easily dismissed as a nice-to-have, when in fact they’re one of the most essential elements of project leadership,” explains Richard Parris, managing editor of UK small business website startups.co.uk.
“Focusing on soft skills can be illuminating for managers and business leaders, too” he continued. “By taking the time to engage with individuals on your team and properly understand their perspectives and motivations, you’re far better equipped for bringing people along on the journey in the long term, as well as getting stuff done in the immediate term.”
The relationship a leader has with their team is often make or break. A good relationship can increase everyone’s job satisfaction, output and ability to add value.
“Soft skills such as communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, and organization have been critical to my ability to lead a team” agrees Robyn Summers-Emler, Head of Commercial Content at MVF. “My role forces me to continuously develop and reflect on these skills.”
“As I see it, a huge part of leadership is hearing and responding to the needs and feelings of the team in a way that makes them feel valued and keeps them motivated and passionate about the work they're doing” she continued.
“It also involves having an overview and feeling in control of a complex system of processes, communications, and workflows which help the team achieve their goals. Without leaning on and evolving the soft skills mentioned above, neither of these things would be possible.”
“In the startup world, where adaptability and personal connections are key, I've found that soft skills are not just important – they're indispensable. They're the tools that have helped me navigate complex situations and lead my team effectively” explains Phil Vam, the CEO of Micro Startups.
“For example, my ability to empathize with my team members has not only enhanced internal communication but has also been crucial in creating a supportive and productive work environment. This, in turn, fosters innovation and resilience, key elements for success in any business.”
Summary: Soft Skills Are Crucial to Successful Leadership
Astute problem-solving, the ability to communicate well and high levels of empathy will provide you with the perfect foundation to lead a team of diverse individuals and utilize knowledge and other “hard skills” in the best ways.
Remember, if you feel like your leadership skillset could be enriched, it's important to seek out opportunities to lead on things at work, and closely observe those around you that you consider to be strong leaders. Listening to others, and reflecting on their feedback, and seeing it all as a chance to learn and improve will put you on the right track to develop leadership skills.