“Leadership” once meant “part of the C-Suite”. But not anymore. The days of “positional leadership” are behind us. A person’s ability to manage and influence others is no longer related to their hierarchical position in the organization. Instead, workers at all levels are finding opportunities to step up and prove themselves.
Employers are constantly on the lookout for people with strong leadership skills, but what does this mean exactly? It turns out that the skills that constitute a “leader” change over time. In recent years, there has been a shift from hard skills to soft skills–but even soft skills come with many dimensions.
To make some sense of it all, here are the top six leadership soft skills being leveraged–and sought after–by today’s successful organizations:
Communication skills are at the top of many leadership skill lists, and for good reason. A leader is essentially a conduit of information from the top down. They take instructions and knowledge from higher up, then translate it and organize it for their subordinates. The key in all of these steps is to understand what needs to be done and to explain that to others, AKA, communication. No wonder 75% of employees believe in communication as the most important aspect of leadership.
2. Change Management
Why do 70% of transformations fail? Reasons abound: unrealistic goals are set; employees don’t deliver what is expected of them; skill gaps are just too large. But at the center of these factors are leaders who have not done their homework – by communicating clearly, collaborating effectively, and committing to the change.
Especially with the changes we’re facing today: The question of WFH, hybrid, or fully coming back to the office jumps to mind, leaders need to be able to lead a team of 10,000 or 10 with the same calming, strategic plan.
3. Strategic Thinking
Believe it or not, strategic thinking, the highly sought-after skill in a world of unstrategic business moves, can actually be learned. Sometimes it is proactive, and sometimes it is reactive. But in a business world where “disruptive” is a popular catchword, essentially all companies must engage in strategic thinking at some point. This competitive attitude should reach the lowest hierarchical levels of the organization – according to this article, it starts with motivating all employees to think strategically.
Some say that self-awareness among leaders is a more important factor for success than having an MBA (in an article from Harvard, of all places!). In the article, a leader stated that “he’d never been directed to take a long look in the mirror and ask questions about who he was, what he valued, and what it really meant to be a leader.”
The same multinational study showed that senior leaders in a company tend to be more self-aware than lower-level managers, perhaps showing that self-awareness can help on the path towards the C-suite, and helps create a more stable work environment. It’s also been proven that self-awareness contributes to team success–so all employees will benefit from a dose.
While expert self-awareness programs are hard to come by, soft skills like empathy, listening, and mediation, which we discuss below, will assist in gaining more self-awareness.
5. Ethical Behavior
Self-awareness is followed closely by what can be considered environmental awareness, where “environment” includes green issues and social justice. A company’s ethics are highly important to younger generations – for example, 25% of Gen Z employees won’t work for unsustainable businesses. Many employees expect their leaders to demonstrate sustainable behaviors, including things like paperless offices, volunteering days, and offering rewards for different acts of sustainably, like ‘most recycled in a day’ or ‘closest to carbon-neutral’.
Offering workshops on becoming more environmentally friendly, or holding team discussions on what ethical behavior means when it comes to data can both educate lesser-aware employees and also help with employer branding. Hitting two birds with one stone is always a plus!
When it comes to dealing with conflict in the workplace, leading by force doesn’t succeed in the long run; poor manager behavior is cited again and again as a major reason for employees leaving for new jobs. Instead, leaders are becoming more empathetic and patient, qualities that are central to mediation and the ability to solve issues quickly and fairly. As most companies tend to handle conflict resolution internally, leaders with mediation skills can add another valuable qualification that can be a huge asset to changing organizations that may be dealing with several conflicts. Even on smaller teams, arming leaders with the skills to stop conflict and come to fair conclusions are an asset and can lead to further opportunities within their organization.
Delegation is the ability to transfer responsibilities from one person to another, most often from the manager to one of the employees they manage. When done right, delegating tasks both frees up time for the manager and engages the employee. But delegation can sometimes feel like a loss of control, especially for new managers. Leaders need to know how, when, and what to delegate, and learn the pros and cons of delegating work.
Not every task can or should be delegated, and it’s important to know what can and cannot. If the CEO puts a manager in charge of an event, for example, the manager can delegate smaller tasks to their reports, but the event strategy and logistics should be overseen and handled by the manager. A strong leader should know the strengths of their employees and know what tasks are best handled by each member of their team. It’s also important to ensure the person who’s been delegated the work understands the deliverables and timeline and has the resources and authority to get the job done without needing to hold the manager’s hand.
8. Managing People
Managing people is a difficult task to achieve – but it’s so worthwhile to work on. The result of a good people manager is a stronger, more committed team that works well together and with other teams. Especially post-pandemic and with the hybrid model, managers have had to learn how to manage people from a distance, which can be even more challenging if you have little to no visibility into the teams’ day-to-day work. Being a good people manager in today’s world means knowing each team member’s strengths and weaknesses and communicating in their ‘language’ in order to ensure comprehension and get the best out of your team.
9. Giving and Receiving Feedback
Feedback is one of the most helpful tools for anyone. We don’t know our blind spots, so having them pointed out or pointing them out to others can be a huge advantage if given correctly. Leaders should give feedback on an ongoing basis and be ready to receive it at any time. Giving constructive criticism and highlighting the positives not only makes employees more motivated but also helps them in their development as an employee. In GrowthSpace employee development sprints, feedback is one of the most important elements of the program. Midway through and at the end of a five-session sprint, we ask the participant to give feedback on their experience so far, as well as their manager. This helps us and the manager gauge the experts’ success in helping the employee in their chosen challenge to overcome. Without that feedback, nobody is on the same page: The employee could think they haven’t improved, while the manager could think the employee knows he or she has improved drastically. That’s the beauty of feedback – misconceptions and misunderstandings are cleared up.
It’s important to communicate feedback clearly, continuously, and without emotion in order for it to be effective. It’s also crucial that you, as a leader, make it clear that anyone can offer feedback to you without penalty – and you should regularly ask for feedback from your team and others to make it clear you’re listening and open to them.
The Search for Effective Leadership Skills
Now what? With a better picture of which skills are dominating leadership requirements, the organization and its employees need to find a way to put ideas into practice.
There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, employers are always on the lookout for developing talent. They need to equip growing departments, handle the challenges of succession, and sometimes just give an opportunity to somebody outstanding. On the other hand, there are the employees. Building leadership strengths require intent and the desire to be leaders – whatever that means in their position.
Connecting these entities are two groups that can make all the difference.
- The first group is made of managers who have the ability to put emerging leadership skills into practice. They might hear of opportunities that eager employees will want to try, even if they are only temporary and unofficial tasks. In addition, managers can recommend some of their high-potential team members to executives who are looking to build the next generation of leaders.
- The second group is HR and L&D. With the right approach, the teams in charge of professional development can get current and potential leaders up to speed with their skills. This allows individual employees to get the specific training that they need while being able to immediately apply what they have learned.
Develop Leaders with the Leading L&D Platform
With a technology-based approach to soft skills training, GrowthSpace is essential for organizations that need to strengthen their leaders. Our L&D platform connects renowned coaches, trainers, and mentors who specialize in leadership skills to successful companies all over the world. With GrowthSpace, these firms provide rapid and effective skill enhancement to their best and brightest.