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Learning the Soft Skills of Leadership

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International

Soft skills training commands a large percentage of the dollars spent on training in organizations and is the focus of most leadership development. What exactly are soft skills and why are they so important?

Norman Cousins, UCLA Professor and pioneer in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (the science concerned with the relationship between the brain and the immune system) perhaps said it best:

The words "hard" and "soft" are generally used by medical students to describe the contrasting nature of courses. Courses like biochemistry, physics, pharmacology, anatomy, and pathology are anointed with the benediction of "hard," whereas subjects like medical ethics, philosophy, history, and patient-physician relationships tend to labor under the far less auspicious label "soft"... [But] a decade or two after graduation there tends to be an inversion. That which was supposed to be hard turns out to be soft, and vice versa. The knowledge base of medicine is constantly changing... But the soft subjects - especially those that have to do with intangibles - turn out to be of enduring value.

These observations offer great insight for professionals in government and industry everywhere. Where new discoveries and changes in nearly every profession necessitate the constant learning and re-learning of technical knowledge, most people would agree with Cousins about the enduring value of the intangible soft skills, particularly for those who lead. Interestingly, it is often those same people who struggle to define these skills, precisely because they seem intangible.

Daniel Goleman, psychologist, researcher and author defines the soft skills as Emotional Intelligence in his book of the same name. He suggests that the possession and use of soft skills contributes more to an individual's ultimate success or failure than technical skills or intelligence.

Cousins and Goleman are not alone in their declaration of the importance of soft skills. Research quoted by The Protocol School of Washington, D. C. and conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and the Stanford Research Institute has shown that technical skills and knowledge account for about 15 percent of the reason an individual gets a job, keeps the job and advances in that job. The remaining 85 percent of job success is based on the individual's "people skills." Similarly, in his book entitled People Skills, author Robert Bolton reports that 80 percent of the people who fail at work, do not fail due to their lack of technical skills but rather because of their inability to relate well with others.

For everyone who has wrestled with how to deliver bad news to an employee, handle an emotional conflict, motivate a team, calm their own anger, inspire others toward a vision or persuade an audience to a course of action, it is vividly clear on a deep personal level how hard the soft interpersonal skills can be to master. Helping people define, develop, make tangible, personalize and effectively use the soft skills that provide enduring value is the mission of many leadership training initiatives.

Figure 1 depicts a leadership model proposed by Tero® International, Inc. which shows the complexity of dynamics involved in good leadership and the role of soft skills. A leader must balance the process of self-knowledge and self-development with the cultivation of relationships through the development of others. A leader must do this all while attending to a clear strategy in pursuit of a common goal - not an easy balance to strike!

Figure 1

Tero® International, Inc. Leadership Model

The solid line connecting strategy with goal represents the "hard" or strategic skills of leadership. The dashed line that connects the leader with others represents the "soft" or relational skills of leadership. Although some leaders approach the task with strengths in either relationship building or strategy, everyone has to learn how to balance the skills they have with the skills they have to learn.

For several years, the popular business press has advocated the importance of maximizing strengths and has asserted that overcoming weaknesses is a waste of precious time. That it takes far more time and energy to move from incompetence to mediocrity than to move from competence to excellence. Sadly, many leaders, particularly those with great strengths in specific areas, adapt this insight into an excuse for not knowing anything (or knowing very little) about other areas. This is intellectual arrogance and is quite different than having no strength.

Consider highly technically-skilled individuals like engineers, accountants, scientists and technicians who report "I am not a people person" and defiantly oppose any situation that requires them to work effectively with people unlike themselves. Similarly are the professionals in areas like marketing, sales and human resources who pride themselves on their ignorance of basic process methodology or elementary accounting. Although our goal should always be to build on our strengths, almost everyone can acquire enough of any skill or knowledge so as not to be completely incompetent about it.

No one can escape the fact - defects and weaknesses matter. Success depends not only on moving steadily forward but on preventing derailment. Preventing derailment means going beyond nourishing strengths and attending to flaws.

As the leadership model also shows, all elements are interconnected and a weakness in any area can have implications on results, relationships or both. For this reason, at the center of the leadership model is the reminder to leaders to constantly ask questions of themselves and others (who, what, where, when, how and why questions).

The soft skills of leadership

Following are many of the personal and interpersonal skills needed by leaders. A number of these skills are skills that are desired, arguably needed, by all individuals. Several are unique to leaders. Following is a list of eight such skills.

Can soft skills be acquired through a training program?

Certainly training programs on the "soft skills" are abundant. But do these programs produce the desired outcomes?

While excellent training plays an important role in the development of soft skills, much more is required. After all, it's complicated. Consider the example of learning to drive a car.

Most of us begin this process by eagerly reading the booklet published by the Department of Motor Vehicles. While a good start, the acquisition of the skill of driving is definitely not an outcome. Ironically, many individuals and their managers hope the acquisition of soft skills can be achieved through reading an interesting book or attending a motivating keynote presentation.

For most of us, the next step in the process of learning to drive is some type of formal training. Formal training is offered through Drivers' Education programs or is provided by well-intentioned parents. This education usually makes use of all basic learning styles - auditory, visual and kinesthetic (learning by doing).

The kinesthetic portion of the training takes place (hopefully) in a safe environment. For example, an empty parking lot where the new skills can be experimented with in relative safety.

The goal is to gain enough mastery of the skill to pass the driving test. Eventually, the happy driving student is in receipt of a drivers' license. Is the skill of driving now mastered?

As any experienced driver will tell you, it takes years of practice in all types of environments to master the skill of driving a car. Eventually we become so skilled at driving that it becomes a habit. Habits are helpful to us. They allow us to do several things at the same time. Simply watch experienced drivers and you'll notice that they drink coffee, talk on cell phones, shave, carry on conversations and eat, all while driving.

The process of learning

In the language of Humanist Psychologist Abraham Maslow, this mastery of a skill, such as driving a car, or learning soft skills, is called unconsciously competent. Figure 2 shows Maslow's four stages of learning.

Figure 2

Abraham Maslow's Stages of Learning

Maslow's contention is that learners begin unconsciously incompetent (we know not what we know not). At this stage, learners are confident that they are doing something well and are unaware that they could develop skills to make them more effective.

When they are presented with new material, they realize there is a body of knowledge or skills that they don't possess. This is a very uncomfortable place to be because we spend a lot of time operating by habit (unconscious) and like to think of ourselves as skilled (competent). When presented with the new information, many people will rationalize ineffective methods of performance (old unconscious habits), for convenience and comfort, and limit their own growth.

The third stage, consciously competent is also a difficult place for a learner to be. While they are using a new set of skills effectively, they are so conscious of the new behavior that it is difficult to do anything else but focus on the new skill. In other words, the skills do not come naturally.

Unconsciously competent (effective habit), Maslow's fourth stage, is how many of us drive our cars home from work. We have mastered the skills of driving that route so well that the car seems to drive by itself. That is, until a new challenge such as moving houses requires us to learn a new route. We realize we have returned to stage one when we find ourselves en route to the old house. The process of learning the new route is a frustrating one because we must begin the learning process all over again - find the shortest route, discover the location of the grocery store, dry cleaners, etc.

Sometimes, the changes required are so daunting that many people refuse to learn the new way. Such as when we travel abroad and realize when we get into our rental car that the steering wheel is on the other side of the vehicle and the other motorists are driving on the opposite side of the road. Alas, we are faced with a choice - learn the new skills or leave the driving to someone else. Most people will chose the latter.

So it is with soft skills. Most people do not undergo the process willingly.

The good news is that we can retrain our brain to naturally respond in new ways, at any age. The bad news for the time-pressed professional is that navigating through the four stages of learning is frustrating and takes a lot of time and practice.

Therein lies the challenge of training the soft skills.

What methodology provides for progress through the four stages of learning without a result of rationalizing or excuse making to return to the comfort of the old habits?

An effective soft skills training program is part of the solution, but it is only a part!

An effective training program

The goal of strategic, skill-building training is to produce meaningful, lasting behavior change in the participants who attend the sessions. Critical to success is a memorable training program, the product of excellent instructional design, which results in changing people's behavior.

In the past decade, research from the neuro- and cognitive sciences has produced more insight into human behavior and learning than during any other time in history. Recent advances in brain research reveal why some training programs succeed and why others fail. These insights have helped instructional designers design and develop training programs that produce meaningful results for those who attend.

The best way to design a learning experience is to incorporate active involvement - kinesthetic learning. Whether it's asking participants to physically move, take notes, work in groups, or practice the skills, great training programs depend heavily on learner involvement.

More is required

Effective training helps people learn new knowledge. However, simply knowing information is not enough to compel someone to act on it. How many of us have learned about the importance of regular exercise and healthy diet but fail to act on this information, or act for only a short period of time? Knowledge is important but it must be followed by action.

The following elements must also be present to ensure learning that results in meaningful behavior change.

Most training initiatives on soft skills fail to incorporate these other elements and as a result, they mostly fail. Let's consider each element, and how each affects meaningful behavioral change.

Expert facilitation

Effective training design is only part of the solution. Great content in the hands of a poor trainer does not produce desired results. In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle described the three things required to persuade another person to act. One must appeal to logos (Greek word meaning "logic"), appeal to pathos (Greek word meaning "emotions"), and appeal to ethos (Greek word meaning "disposition" or "character"). In other words, for training to be successful, the information must make sense, must evoke desirable emotions and be led by someone the participants trust. Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge point out, you won't believe the message if you don't trust the messenger.

Another important consideration is a safe learning environment (like the vacant parking lot when learning to drive) where individuals can try, fail and try again without great risk or fear. At the same time, the learning environment should mimic the stresses found in the real world. Achieving this balance is one of the greatest challenges of training and few trainers are highly skilled in it.

Contextual awareness

Training must happen in the context of the real world. Along side the soft skills training provided, participants should gain a broad knowledge base of all aspects of the organization in which they will lead. Regardless of the department or division a leader works in, every leader should have at least a general understanding of the main systems, processes and functions throughout the organization.

Formal support

Formal support is also required. Mentors and Action Learning Communities can fill this role. Committed, talented individuals who are prepared to give generously of themselves to help decode corporate culture, provide opportunities for learning, provide feedback and coaching and assist with the process of transferring the learning to the real world.

Informal support

The more peer and organizational support that exists, the more likely the individual is to have success implementing the new skills. Informal support can also be found outside of the professional environment, at home or in other personal pursuits.

Opportunities to use the new skills

The best learning is first person, present tense, experiential. While some of this can be simulated in a classroom, a mechanism for real-life application of the skills is also needed. Since leadership always develops around a goal, leaders-in-training should stretch their comfort zones by applying their new skills to a real-world goal that will make a meaningful difference to the organization.

Self-study and self-analysis

Individuals involved in a learning experience designed to build the personal and interpersonal skills of leadership should ideally engage in self-study activities that support the learning and encourage self-reflection and self-analysis. These self-study activities can include reading relevant literature, incorporating the skills into real-life situations (both personal and professional) and evaluating the results achieved.


The greatest growth in each of us occurs after a period of some stress (not too much). The development experience must ensure the participants are accountable for their own growth and that successful change in behavior occurs - the kind of behavior change that is somewhat resistance to change. Every one of us remembers significant learning experiences in our lives and nods in agreement that they always were accompanied by a great investment of time, effort and personal energy.

Organizations committed to leadership development must prepare themselves for the inevitable stress that accompanies meaningful growth. They should expect participants to have heavy workloads, to feel frustrated and to even talk about burnout. All of this is normal and stress should be purposefully built into the learning experience to simulate real life leadership as much as possible.


Extraordinary growth, particularly in challenging skills such as the soft skills is hard work. To recognize efforts and keep determination alive, celebrating accomplishments is required. This can be done through both formal and informal methods.


What type of results can be observed, then, through an attention to the elements necessary in creating meaningful behavioral change during soft skills training? Statistical support for the methodology outlined in this paper comes from an analysis of leadership development programs conducted by Tero International, Inc. in 2000 through 2004. The six- to eight-month leadership development programs incorporated the learning elements outlined in this paper.

Drs. Jim Veale and Tom Westbrook from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa analyzed data collected from participants in the training programs around two areas: self-esteem and the learning objectives of the program. Four assessments, a pre-, post-, post-, post-series, were carried out to be evaluated later for their statistical significant.

The results showed that the training could expect to move the typical person from:

These are results that most educators and employers would consider to be both educationally and practically significant. A 48% increase in communication skills, 37% increase in personal effectiveness and 33% increase in self-esteem is especially impressive given that statisticians report that a mere 3% increase is meaningful.

Another way to look at this is what parent wouldn't be pleased to see their child show an improvement from 50% to 98% during a six-month period in a given course of study?

The results by most definitions were breathtaking, as measured both on a quantitative and qualitative basis. But the numbers only underscore the obvious changes observed. The ongoing feedback from executives, mentors and the program participants themselves tells the complete story. The learning of complex skills such as the soft skills of leadership does not happen conveniently and miraculously in a classroom. Those who have made the journey testify that first-person experience, communities of learners, support, self-assessment, and tireless effort to learn new skills and unlearn ineffective methods, all linked as closely as possible to the environment in which leadership will occur are needed, in addition to formal training.


Bolton, Robert (1986), People Skills, Touchstone Books

Goleman, Daniel (1995), Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books

Kouzes, James and Posner, Barry (2002), The Leadership Challenge, Third Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Maxwell, John C. (2003), There's No Such Thing As "Business Ethics", Warner Books

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