Soft Skills: The rapid redefinition of key leadership

28 Sep 2021

Soft Skills: The rapid redefinition of key leadership

The rise of the indispensable soft skills; why they are no longer a ‘nice to have’. Successful leadership must have a new, more ‘human’ face and capability to succeed in a world of constant disruption, but how equipped is today’s leadership to do so?

Soft skills: They’ve always been an important trait for successful leaders, but with the strain of recent global disruptions, they are now vitally in the spotlight and expectations have never been greater.

We can thank the US Army for the term ‘soft skills’; having concentrated on training troops on how to use machines to do their job – the physically hard aspect - they noticed that a lot of what made a group of soldiers victorious was in fact how the group was led.

The trouble was the military were not currently training with that in mind, so they dedicated significant intellectual efforts to recognise what these skills might be – the skills that didn’t utilise ‘hard’ machines – so the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills were coined.

Leadership essentials

Deloitte's 2021 Resilience Report states, 

60% of C-level executives cited that today’s leaders should have crisis preparedness to ensure an organisation’s survival of any eventuality.

In times of disruption, leaders are not only tasked to steer and drive their organisation in the right direction, but also effectively have the foresight to identify and cultivate potential within their team to help with the crisis at hand.

Today, it is fairly well accepted that soft skills — such as compassion, emotional intelligence, kindness, adaptability, integrity, optimism, self-motivation, grit and resilience — have become crucial success factors.

The challenges where these skills are numerous. How do you best broker a merger between two companies with different cultures and ensure there is space for everyone? How do you lead through a pandemic, and not forget the human toll of those you lead? Can you think critically when the majority would prefer to go with the flow, and then persuade the doubters to take a different, difficult path?

And in many ways, none of those skills deserve the word ‘soft’ because they clearly aren’t. They’re power skills; they take real effort, real strategy, and real qualities that few possess.

In today’s unpredictable global environment, the ante has been upped.

Being human is a skill

Fundamentally, there are good reasons for this rapid redefinition of leadership. As more and more job activities become automated, soft skills - which cannot yet be replicated by machines - have clearly become more important.

As yet, the things that make us human are still unique. Soon, we may be ‘colleagues’ to machines, so that point will become even more pertinent.

Furthermore, with frightening speed and enormous consequences, the pandemic has required leaders to be more human than ever.

When disruption like this happens, striking at the very lives of employees, having great technical skills with the ability to read a balance sheet counts for very little in that moment of crisis.

“People want to feel related to, they need their concerns understood, and responded to. A leader without empathy in this situation is without the tools to do their job properly.”

says Ralph Göller, partner and Head of the German Automotive Practice.

Beyond pandemics, a changing world that promises almost constant disruption has put leaders in a much more exposed position. Matters of climate crisis, social equality and economic fairness can no longer be delegated. They have to be worked through in collaborative partnerships.

This demands that leading is no longer by top-down decree but a relationship-building and influencing process, with soft skills again to the fore.

Crisis of confidence

The trouble is, it seems that not enough leaders have what it takes to lead in a way that can navigate disruptions with confidence.

This was very much highlighted when we surveyed nearly 2000 board members, executives and senior managers from every major market, including many CEOs, in association with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

The Index revealed that, across the world, 95% of senior executives believe that managing disruption well is vital to the success of their organisations, yet a staggering 85% lack confidence in their own leadership team’s ability to successfully deliver.

This clearly leaves a large majority lacking confidence in their leaders, including the all-important CEO. Read more on leadership from our Global Leadership Confidence Index.  

Crucially, it revealed just how much the human qualities of a leader were key to leading with confidence. If organisations hope to successfully compete in a world of growing disruption, they need to focus on retaining and developing the type of leaders that thrive - despite increasing uncertainty.

Judging leaders differently

"Today’s leaders are being judged against a far wider range of values and mindsets, in addition to their skills" concludes Silvia Eggenweiler, Partner in the LifeSciences and Technology Practices.

The most successful leaders now score highly for their curiosity, courage and emotional intelligence – traits that typically mattered less some years ago.

Emotional intelligence (EI) - the foundation of so many soft skills - was a key indicator of leadership confidence our findings.

EI was identified to be part of 79% of those leading in ‘confident’ organisations, yet absent in all but 4% of companies worried about having leadership able to cope in a disrupted world.

Understanding change

As the leadership environment changes and the necessary skills with it, it is more important to understand the mindset and assess the potential of leadership to thrive in new and different contexts.

To help in this process, our proprietary Odgers Berndtson LeaderFit® Model and Profile is designed to identify the leaders able to thrive in a world of disruption, complexity and uncertainty. We combine this with our deep knowledge gained from the market through our global executive search consulting.

If you want to discuss these issues and how they affect your organisation, or perhaps want advice on your own career trajectory, please get in touch.