Why do some leaders achieve dizzying heights of success while others struggle to lift off? According to leaders in multiple fields, the answer comes down to two simple words: soft skills.
While technical expertise and work experience were once the ultimate “must-haves” for leaders (and make no mistake, these qualities are still extremely important), an increasing body of research is demonstrating that once a certain threshold of technical ability and know-how is exceeded, soft skills take over as the number-one factor driving upward success. And these skills affect more than just a leader’s personal success: a number of studies demonstrate that the soft skills of leaders are a major contributing factor to employee engagement, and consequently to organizational productivity and profitability.
So what soft skills are critical for leaders to have? A recent article from the World Economic Forum offers a new take on the most important leadership-oriented soft skills that go beyond the standard examples of communication and problem-solving. Some of the most valuable ones include the following:
Focused work ethic—Leaders not only need to work hard—by taking initiative and going above and beyond—they also need to know how to work smart. Believe it or not, it’s a true skill to be able to work hard with a sense of purpose and direction, focused on the larger objective of achieving required results; and it’s a skill that great leaders have in common.
Operational leadership—Experts sometimes summarize strong leadership as “vision plus execution.” Having a vision of what to do is important, but it’s nothing without the next step; that is, the ability to marshal the resources to execute that vision.
Strategic worldview—Good leaders understand that strategy is what drives tactics, not the other way around. If the strategy itself is flawed, the quality of the tactics used to achieve it is irrelevant. This means that a major leadership skill involves seeing and understanding the weak points of a strategy, and then working to hone and sharpen it.
Ability to Zoom—Focusing on details one moment and the big picture the next is an important soft skill for leaders to have. Zooming in on a problem helps to determine the root cause, while zooming out allows for a wide view of all possible solutions.
Multifunctional thinking—Naturally, leaders will have the strongest expertise in their own business functions, but strong leaders know how to see beyond the needs of their own departments to balance the often competing demands of growth versus operational efficiency.
Persistence—The ability to never give up isn’t a personality trait, it’s a skill: one that the best leaders have learned by heart. In business, as in life, it’s inevitable that things will go wrong. When this happens, knowing how to keep going is what makes all the difference.
Influence—Influence always seems like a somewhat intangible skill, but it’s closely related to some of the more familiar soft skills like teamwork and emotional intelligence. Essentially, influence is the skill of persuasion: It is the ability both to convince those in positions of authority to agree to proposals and to motivate employees to willingly participate in executing those proposals.
Proactivity—Going beyond good planning, the skill of proactivity is all about anticipating potential problems before they arise and taking prompt and logical action to address them.
Ability to use team and resources wisely—Achieving more with less is always on the agenda for efficient leaders who know how to avoid or overcome unnecessary obstacles and get the most from their teams and the resources they have available.
Organizational skills—Organizational skills aren’t just for administrators. Similar to the skill of “operational leadership” mentioned earlier, a healthy dose of organizational skills is what allows good leaders to deliver consistent results on time and on budget.
Responsibility—Taking responsibility has long been a hallmark of a great leader: It’s all about doing something when you say you’ll do it, and not making excuses or pointing fingers when things go wrong.
Ability to select the right people—Being able to sense strong performers and people who are the right fit for a team is a soft skill that good leaders work on developing throughout their careers. After all, a leader can only be as effective as his or her team, so ensuring that team is of the best possible caliber is one of the most important skills a leader can have.
Ability to “swim in the deep end”—As leaders advance, there will be moments when they feel completely out of their depth. While this can be stressful, it’s an essential part of progress; strong leaders have therefore learned how to build the survival skills necessary for keeping their heads above water.
Courage in decision-making—Great leaders don’t just make the right decisions, they make them with courage and conviction, often in a limited amount of time.