It’s hard to demonstrate leadership potential without soft skills

Who do you admire as a leader? In the present day and age, it’s a question I certainly ask myself more often. Let’s face it, the world is not short of disappointing, uninspiring and even incompetent leaders.

As you progress through your career, you’ll come to realise that great leaders are more the exception than the norm. It’s true. And it shouldn’t be surprising because leadership is incredibly complex. It demands an intricate blend of credentials and experience, and both hard and soft skills.

It’s those pesky soft skills that are the most problematic. Often, missing or inadequate soft skills are the reason candidates are unsuccessful, whether applying for a new job or a promotion.

By way of reminder, hard skills can be taught which makes them easy to quantify. We acquire hard skills when we gain a qualification, achieve proficiency in a foreign language, or master a computer program, for example.

In contrast, soft skills are the people or interpersonal skills that determine how we interact with others. They’re subjective which makes them difficult to identify and validate. Problem-solving ability, teamwork, flexibility, emotional intelligence, integrity, listening and initiative are all examples of soft skills.

Importantly, soft skills should not be confused with personality traits which remain relatively static throughout a person’s life. For example, some people are inherently cheerful, charming or shy. Personality traits such as these will not change.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are fluid. They can be learned and honed.

Soft skills are what we tend to reference when we think of good (or bad leaders):

  • I admire The Queen for her strength and resilience.
  • I admire Greta Thunberg for her passion and conviction.
  • I admire Ruth Bader Ginsberg for her progressive thinking.

Why are soft skills so important to employers?

According to Career Builder, 16 per cent of companies say soft skills are more important than hard skills and 77 per cent consider soft skills to be equally important. There are reasons for this:

Firstly, soft skills are transferable. If you have resilience it will serve you well throughout your career – in every role, not just the only you’re in now or are positioning for next.

Secondly, when companies make a recruitment misstep, it’s often because they ignored, or failed to validate, a candidate’s soft skills. They were seduced by how the person looked on paper only to discover the person lacked the interpersonal and other soft skills necessary to perform the role.

Thirdly, with every recruit, every promotion, leading employers will be thinking about a candidate’s ability to contribute to the wider organisation, not just perform the role in question.

Right track, baby, I was born this way

Are leaders born or made? Is leadership potential intrinsic or something that can be taught or learned? What’s your view?

Those who have made a career of studying leadership and leaders are increasingly of the view that leadership is mostly (as in about two-thirds) made.

Certainly, there are characteristics or personality traits which may predispose a person to being or becoming a great leader – intellect, for example – but most of the sought-after skills can be acquired.

In other words, leaders can be developed.

So, what are the attributes of a good leader? Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers, but you’ll also notice many soft skills are nominated repeatedly. For example:

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Develop your soft skills to improve your leadership potential

So how can you develop your leadership potential? Develop the desirable soft skills. Here’s some advice to help you get started.

Reflect and self-assess

Self-assessment is regarded as one of the most important aspects of leadership development. After all, you can’t expect to correct your limitations unless you have honestly identified what they are. What are your soft skills strengths and weaknesses? If you’re not sure, ask your manager, a colleague, or someone else whose opinion you trust. Or do an online test!

Once you know your shortcomings, you’ll be more aware of them and can put strategies in place to correct them. Importantly, don’t think of this as a one-off exercise. Reflect on your weaknesses from time to time so you can monitor how well you are converting those weaknesses into strengths.

Conduct a soft skills audit

Now that you’ve identified your soft skills strengths and weaknesses, the next step is to identify the soft skills that are required or highly desirable in your next role (and the role after that). Find some job ads for the sort of role you think you’d like within, say, the next two years. What soft skills are expressly listed? What soft skills are implied? For example, presented below are three jobs which are currently advertised on Indeed.

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Using the corporation communications manager role as an example, you might self-assess as being strong on ambition and responsibility, but completely lacking on coaching skills and only moderate on time management, attention to detail and networking. What steps you could take to convert your weaknesses into strengths?

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Take responsibility

Do whatever you can to improve your leadership potential. If your employer is not willing or able to support your learning and development needs, control your own destiny. Design your own self-development program. Invest your own time. Just don’t make excuses.

LinkedIn Learning is a smart place to start as there are literally thousands of leadership development courses and videos available with topics such as “Creating a Leadership Development Program”, “Leading Without Formal Authority”, “Coaching Skills for Leaders and Managers” and “Transitioning from Manager to Leader”.

Own your mistakes

Throughout your career, you will have setbacks. You will fail. You will disappoint. You will let people down. When things go wrong, your leadership mettle will be tested and on display. When any of these things happen, take responsibility. Own your mistakes so that you can learn from them.

Ask for help

How can others help you to become a great leader? Find a mentor whose leadership ability you admire. Determine what they did to develop their soft skills and leadership potential. What did they learn along the way? What advice can they give you?

Lead by example

As you work toward achieving your leadership goal – the first of many leadership goals, perhaps – remember that the ultimate test of your ability, readiness and performance as a leader is to lead by example. Be the person others can look up to and admire – even when no one’s looking.

Promote your soft skills

Your soft skills are a way of distinguishing you from others who have similar qualifications and experience. Make sure you update your resume and your LinkedIn profile to promote your soft skills. In saying this, don’t claim to possess soft skills that you don’t genuinely have. That would be dishonest. If you’re unsure, challenge yourself to give an example of how you have recently demonstrated the skill. If you can’t think of an example, omit it.