No one succeeds in a vacuum. Looking up and around, taking in the ideas and views of others and integrating them into your planning is the path to achievement, says Hamza Khan, the author of two bestselling books on leadership, resilience, productivity and change.
“I wake up every single day obsessed with the question: How can we best equip leaders to be prepared for the leadership moments well in advance? And how do we help them learn on the job?” Khan says.
One answer, he believes, is leaders fine-tuning their soft skills. Khan, who has worked in academia and found his calling in entrepreneurship, co-founded SkillsCamp in 2015 to do just that: teach managers and educators soft skills.
Soft skills, Khan says, enable those in leadership roles to develop open systems that thrive on input instead of closed systems that collapse in on themselves. Open systems welcome feedback from diverse perspectives within and without the organization.
To take an idea to fruition, or lead an organization through growth or change, requires a willingness to dig in—to take a hard look at successes and failures, company culture and morale and to get in sync with the behaviors and expectations of today’s workforce.
Khan follows the model of servant leadership, a philosophy that leadership exists at the bottom to serve the needs of its workers. “How you treat your employees is how they’re going to treat the customers,” Khan says. “And it’s the customers who, when satisfied by that treatment, will ultimately reward the organization.”
3 key soft skills needed by leadership
To tap into the needs of employees, those in leadership need soft skills. Khan says attunement, resilience and creativity (ARC) are the three key areas to develop those soft skills. Together, this “ARC” will form a framework for leaders to cultivate an open, productive and more successful environment. Attunement allows you to identify strengths and weaknesses, while resilience enables you to accept these and move forward, and creativity sparks the solutions.
Here’s what managers stand to gain when they develop these soft skills.
Attunement between a team and a leader is key. It combines active listening and communicating—or literally tuning in to the needs of both the working team and the community at large. To apply this soft skill to the workplace, Khan suggests those in leadership roles try a reverse town hall meeting. Ask difficult questions, practice active listening and reinforce communication. Creating a culture of acceptance will ensure that you receive honest answers.
“You can even take that further in structured one-on-ones,” Khan adds. “Ask questions that are difficult for leaders to ask, because we might not like the answers we’re going to receive, but we have to cringe fast and cringe early when seeking these answers. We can ask questions like, ‘Why did you join this organization? Are you happy here? How am I doing as a leader? What could I improve?’”
Allowing space for these answers can reveal gaps in understanding you may have about the organization and opens the door to fixing problems.
While attunement lies with the collective, resilience comes from within. Khan looks at resilience in this context as “the ability to sustain productivity for the long haul.”
The benefits of this soft skill for managers seem obvious, but being resilient requires looking inward, which is hard work.
Why bother? “Resilience can help to withstand the stress of change,” Khan says, adding that it can also help separate good stress from bad stress—“understanding that not all stress is created equal.”
Many companies falter during periods of change and when they reach maturity. This is where leaders encounter an inflection point: Renew themselves by changing or, as Khan puts it, “tumble into the chasm of time” and lose their relevance. Only resilient leaders, Khan says, can navigate into the future.
Opening lines of communication generates a free flow of information that fuels creativity. Like any other leadership soft skill, creativity can be developed and nurtured—and must be for leaders to create and communicate their vision and for organizations to innovate and thrive.
Creativity can come in many forms. Sometimes, it’s about looking at something from a new perspective: Challenge preconceived ideas and structures, shake up established routines and troubleshoot weak points.
Although it sounds counterintuitive, Khan suggests engineering chaos in the workplace by brainstorming all the pitfalls that can occur and considering options for rectifying them. “You know, organizations are really good at doing post-mortems after the fact, [where you] sit down and talk about why something didn’t work out,” he says. “But what if you did the opposite?”
Other soft skills those in leadership should develop
Leaders with developed emotional intelligence have the ability to sense, appreciate and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions to facilitate higher levels of collaboration and productivity. Success is the combination of self-awareness (recognizing your own moods and emotions) with self-regulation (the ability to control disruptive emotions) and motivation (an intrinsic desire to effectively accomplish your goals).
Developing this soft skill allows managers to regulate their own moods and behaviors so they have a more favorable impact on others. It also helps leaders recognize and draw out personal conflict within their employees—and help solve the problem by offering empathy and additional resources as needed. Self-awareness is making sure that whatever is bothering you doesn’t become a team problem while also helping others recognize and do the same.
Under the guise of getting things done, leaders don’t often take enough time to fine-tune the way they interact with others and convey their messages, either verbally or in writing.
People in general tend to be sensitive to the way they want people to communicate with them, but they are less sensitive to recognizing the ways others want to be communicated with. For example, if an outgoing and fast-paced person corners an introverted colleague in the hall for a quick decision on a complicated work plan, chances are that person will shut down and not completely receive the message.
Developing this soft skill goes beyond those in leadership roles having writing or speaking proficiency. It is also the ability to adjust how you communicate so that the other person is receiving the message you intend. This creates clarity in communication, which reduces opportunities for misunderstanding.
People don’t like to be told what to do, talked at or ordered around. The command-and-control model of management is out of date.
Employee coaching is instead about facilitating and supporting a person’s professional growth, as opposed to giving a directive for a straight line between where they are and what they need to do. This approach requires more skill and finesse than the command-and-control approach. A leader’s goal as a coach is to help the team learn, grow and create outcomes independently.
Leaders who are coaches will identify what is preventing people from being effective and give them the tools to teach themselves, instead of just telling them.
When a commanding style is used, it almost always sets up a barrier for employee engagement. If you constantly tell your employees what to do, it could prevent them from taking more initiative and a self-starting approach to the job. It is also setting up an expectation in the job that your employees don’t have to think because they will be told what to do.
A leader with effective interpersonal skills is respectful of employees and has the ability to easily build rapport. This leader attempts to see the situation from the other person’s perspective, listening actively to understand ideas being presented and empathizing when needed.
Those in leadership who develop this soft skill can help their teams cultivate relationships by encouraging understanding and thoughtfulness. These leaders also show sensitivity to diversity issues, celebrate distinctions and help facilitate relationships among those who may be different.
There is team strength in different points of view, varied approaches to problems and ideas inspired by distinctive life experiences. Interpersonal skills develop relationships that add to the richness and effectiveness of a team.
Think of the best manager you ever had: Chances are this manager appreciated you. This soft skill for managers is about being others-oriented as opposed to being self-oriented. A leader who appreciates others will take the time to connect with employees, making them feel important, heard, understood and valued.
Appreciating others also involves recognizing employees for their ideas and contributions to the team or the project. If you make a habit of showing appreciation to each person on your team on a monthly or even quarterly basis, you will see a significant shift in employee loyalty and production.
These soft skills for leadership naturally dovetail with each other, but when you aggregate them and practice them, you will be a better manager—and even a better person. It’s important to recognize that while some may view these skills as “soft,” they are anything but. Strengthening these skills will result in more effectiveness, increased productivity and stronger results from your team. And that goes straight to the bottom line.
A portion of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Lisa M. Aldisert contributed to this version. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock.com