Leadership is really about soft skills

Leadership FP

Leadership might be the most important ambiguous word in the English language, right up there with something like “culture.” There are so many different theories about it — from Blue Ocean to a focus on humility — and so many books (entire sections of bookstores), yet it’s pretty much a deceptively simple concept. Use the same traits you’d use to get someone to listen to you and go from there.

In fact, I was just reading this article on Harvard Business Review and the first line struck me more than maybe anything I’ve read on there in weeks:

If you have room in your head for only one nugget of leadership wisdom, make it this one: the most powerfully motivating condition people experience at work is making progress at something that is personally meaningful. If your job involves leading others, the implications are clear: the most important thing you can do each day is to help your team members experience progress at meaningful work.

We know this: 82 percent of managers aren’t really good at their jobs. Even in a tougher economy, people look for jobs on the regular. The single-biggest reason cited for job departures is “relationship with manager” on almost every survey ever conducted. And yet, it’s all fairly simple: help the people under you make progress on work they consider meaningful to them.

Now, this can be a challenge right from the start — some people take jobs out of necessity, as opposed to it being an industry they really love, as one example. How can you motivate those people? Well, here’s the HBR suggestion:

To do so, you must understand what drives each person, help build connections between each person’s work and the organization’s mission and strategic objectives, provide timely feedback, and help each person learn and grow on an ongoing basis. Regular communication around development — having coaching conversations — is essential. In fact, according to recent research, the single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.

Goes back to the same old things: focus on people as opposed to processes, embrace organic communications, and have empathy. Easier said than done, yes. But those are the cornerstone elements of the managerial process. It’s not about meeting deadlines and deliverables and all that — there will always be more of those, no matter how hard you try to flee from them — but rather, about developing a team underneath you who can excel in your absence and take on more of the long-range thinking aspects of the job; this, in turn, frees you up for work-life balance and for bigger-picture items yourself.

Inline Coaching Manager

Problem is, this almost never happens:

Strangely, at most companies, coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do. Even though research makes it clear that employees and job candidates alike value learning and career development above most other aspects of a job, many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role. Managers think they don’t have the time to have these conversations, and many lack the skill. Yet 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training programs. So if line managers aren’t supportive and actively involved, employee growth is stunted. So is engagement and retention.

Here’s a seemingly simple solution: I’ve seen studies — I’ve written about them, but I don’t remember the exact post in which I did (wait, I just did) — where people have estimated that 25-40 percent of a manager’s time is put towards activities that don’t actually matter to the bottom line. Now, if you asked a standard middle manager, they might tell you “That means stuff like performance reviews!” Maybe it does. But if you took that time where they’re off doing whatever and instead put more of a focus on coaching — less of a focus on meetings — wouldn’t that be a good thing in terms of engaging and motivating the team? Seems so.

Bottom line: managing is about coaching more than standard definitions of leadership (“being a general” or “making hard decisions”). Those things play in, yes — but the focus is actually on the “soft skills” that we don’t often focus on.




Ted Bauer


  1. Well said. I especially enjoyed the TED talk, with the image of the chain – it seems that managers fall into a bad habit of pushing the chain, not out of a mindful choice, but because that’s all they know. But, it’s about learning to be ahead and draw people in the direction you want them to go.

  2. This is a great post. It is unfortunate that many “great” leaders are ineffective in leading! I recently wrote a blog post talking about the importance of Celebrating Efforts. Employees need satisfaction or as you put it, ” making progress at something that is personally meaningful.” People need to feel good about themselves and what they do.

Reply If You'd Like