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Only Hire Leaders Who Are Soft

by Michael O'Leary

The four essential soft skills of leadership competence.

 

Sir John Harvey-Jones, the larger than life former Chairman at ICI who was arguably the first pin-stripe celebrity, was horrified to discover that “business ethics” was only an optional extra at Harvard Business School. Some 30 years later much seems to have changed as the Financial Times reports that “Touchy feely” courses are as valuable for MBA’s as number crunching. FT journalist Emma Jacobs writes that MBA students at London Business School now experience a course on “interpersonal dynamics”, which encourages participants to develop self-awareness, practice mindfulness and have difficult conversations in the workplace.

In his article, Richard Jolly, an adjunct professor of organisational behaviour says “if you have self-awareness, that helps you handle yourself”, while Warren Teichner, a senior partner with McKinsey suggests some of the consultants they hire initially overlook these skills but are expected to engage in communication, teamwork and leadership training. I am even more surprised by Adam Grant a Professor of Management at Wharton who states not teaching soft skills to MBA’s “is a bad idea and probably a dangerous one”! While all true, it’s hardly the cutting edge of soft skill competency, it feels like the 1980’s.

Soft skills are the most important elements in any leader’s toolbox. Sure, they must be able to create a compelling vision, develop strategy and troubleshoot often complex challenges. But what good is that if no one buys in, follows or supports these? We identify four critical soft competencies that are truly essential of effective leadership. We argue they are more important than many “hard factors” often associated with leadership are:

Communication

Storytelling has always been central to how communities and tribes identify themselves and share information. Stories connect at an emotional level and make deeper connections to the listener. Emotion connects us to action. Communication is not just about ‘what’ we say but also about ‘how’. Drawing from a leader’s experience and using evidence of past learning to indicate the current need is a compelling form for leadership communication.

Ethics

Has there ever been a time when integrity was more under fire? It feels as if global leaders have utterly eschewed authenticity for personal gain. Political leadership has travelled so far downhill that the gutter has become the new norm. Organisation leaders must possess a strong moral compass to lead transformation and change effectively. They cannot act in a distrustful manner and then demand that others trust them to deliver their vision.

Emotional Competence

The ability to recognise or even predict the likely emotional responses that can arise is key to a leader’s ability to successfully overcome complex dissonance within a team or wider organisation. Leaders must possess self-awareness, to recognise the differing unique perspectives that others may have of them to influence outcomes and persuade others to align with their agenda.

Connectedness

Great leaders work to develop broad and diverse personal connections, thriving from the varied perspectives that these provide. They read widely, connecting to a variety of subjects and personal interests. Connectedness is a state of constantly reaching out along all available channels to build a broader perspective and widen sources of personal energy.

If you want to lead others, you must first learn to lead yourself. Continuously seek formal and informal opportunities to develop soft competencies, these are what encourage others to follow you. Fully engaging members of your leadership team means reaching them as people first and professionals second.

 

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