Top 5 Soft Skills For Leaders

Every executive has no doubt heard the term ‘soft skills’ quite a bit lately. Just look at Google Trends for the term, and you’ll see that in the past year and a half, the search volume for the term has quadrupled from 2013. What has made soft skills top of mind? And what are the top five soft skills for leaders.

Let’s first look at how we define soft skills, according to Investopedia, “Soft skills are character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered to be a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills…Hard skills can be learned and perfected over time, but soft skills are more difficult to acquire and change.” 

Soft skills appears to go back to the US Military fifty years ago. “The military had excelled at training troops on how to use machines to do their job. But they were noticing that a lot of what made a group of soldiers victorious was how the group was led. This bothered the military as they weren’t training for that. So they went about creating a method to capture how this knowledge was being acquired.

Paul G Whitmore is the name that comes up the most in these documents. His team came up with the contrast between working with something that is physically hard like a machine and anything else which is soft to the touch. From this research three criteria were created to judge if a skill is ‘soft’ or ‘hard’:

  • Degree of interaction with a machine
  • Degree of specificity of behaviour to be performed
  • Typical kind of on the job situation

The military was very serious about understanding soft skills, they even involved IBM in studying them. Their work in understanding soft skills has not really changed how we train people for careers. We still primarily teach and train people to master the ‘hard skills’ of their chosen profession. So let’s look at the top five skills for leaders.


Storytelling is an element of communication skills. For leaders, they need to be able to inspire and motivate employees, customers, and stakeholders. From presentations to networking, the ability to tap into emotions is a powerful leadership trait. 

Self Awareness

The ability to objectively view yourself and your own actions is difficult.  Self awareness is an element of the broader concept, emotional intelligence. The better you understand yourself, your triggers and motivations, the better you are able to empathize with others in your dealings.

Customer Orientation

Putting the customer first is not a new idea, but in day to day activities, it’s much harder than it sounds. We’ve evolved from customer service to customer success, to customer experience in the past couple of decades. Make business decisions based on customer needs and wants and think of each interaction they have with the company as a chance to win them over.

Diversity Openness

Diversity is another hot topic and not just for gender or race. From sexuality to thinking, diversity has become far more encompassing in today’s business environment. And for good reason. The more diverse your workforce, the better chance your company is more innovative and profitable.

Change Management

The only constant is change, yet change management inside the company is one of, if not the most, difficult task a leader has to deal with. When dealing with people, it is impossible to predict how each will react to a new change. The willingness to demonstrate transparency, carve out time for one-on-one conversations, and involve employees in the process can make a big difference in how people embrace the change.

The uptick in search for the term soft skills may mean that fifty years after the military first studied them, we are finally giving them the attention and focus they deserve. Technology has changed the way we work, and soft skills for leaders are arguably more important than hard skills. If you’re interested in learning more about developing soft skills for your executive team, send us a note.