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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

Leadership’s Soft Side

As appeared in the April 2 Edition of the Columbia Business Times.

In the 21st century, leaders are feeling the challenge of being able to effectively lead with the hard skills of leadership and management: skills such as growing assets, managing physical plants and improving technology. These measurable hard skills have been as timeless as management theory itself, but in these days of rapid, nonstop change, it isn’t enough to just keep the trains running on time.

A multi-generational workforce with a variety of backgrounds and attitudes is now driving the productivity of companies and organizations. The words all and everyone no longer apply, if they ever did. Henry Ford revolutionized industry with his concept of the assembly line, where employees did one thing every day, all day long. Today, the concept of multitasking is much more prevalent. Not only do we do many things all day, but we also do them simultaneously.

Leadership’s soft skills are more difficult to measure than the hard skills, but the fact remains that they are just as necessary. Although this short article will only scratch the surface, I’ll cover some of the most essential soft skills leaders must embrace and develop into abilities in today’s competitive world.

The ability to drive the language of the culture

This is perhaps the most important leadership skill of all. Culture is the driving force of any organization, whether it’s a company, a family or a nation, and language is the unifying force that drives the culture. There has never been a culture that didn’t have its own language, a language that was created over time and understood by every person within the culture. Outsiders, especially new employees, must be trained on what all aspects of the language mean. Leaders must drive these meanings home and make sure the language is accomplishing a positive purpose; if not, it can be devastating. In the late ’90s when McDonald’s was declining, the employees created a term for their positions — McJob — the definition of which is a low-paying, dead-end job that requires few skills and little chance for advancement. McDonald’s has since undergone an amazing turnaround and was named the No. 10 most admired company by Fortune magazine. It started by changing the culture within. Great organizations are built from the inside out.

The ability to energize others

Energizing others is about inspiring others. Today’s leader must be inspired. The rule is simple: you cannot give something to someone that you, yourself, do not have. If you want to inspire others, you must be inspired. The best energizers have a raw brand of enthusiasm. People respond to them. Leaders who energize bring out the absolute best in people and inject them with confidence. They paint a vivid yet realistic vision of success for others, a vision that others might not have been able to see on their own. Leaders who energize realize the key to motivating their followers is not to micromanage or go strictly “by the book” but to outline an agreed upon strategy with objectives that sufficiently challenge and let people run with the strategy on their own.

The ability to lead consistently

Leaders must hold themselves accountable for how they lead in a consistent fashion. Leaders cannot simply ask followers to do things they do not consistently do. Leaders cannot encourage followers to have a consistent learning plan if they are not learning. Leaders cannot encourage followers to network and develop key relationships if they are not willing to do it also. By the same token, consistently leading requires venturing into new territory, not just revisiting the old. Followers become suspect when leaders “dabble” in this area and that area but have no clear direction. Trust can be firmly established only when leaders have clear expectations of both themselves and others. All expectations must be clearly communicated with frequency and consistent behavior.

The ability to be tough, yet sensitive

Leaders must understand that others on their team have as much insight into the organization as they do — maybe more. Leaders must clearly establish the standards of performance as expectations and be tough on them but sensitive toward people. People are not resources to be controlled and directed; they are human beings with thoughts and feelings. They see non-performance in co-workers and become unmotivated. The blame might start to land on the co-worker but will eventually find its correct accountability location on the leadership. Leaders must build a team where accountability is shared as willingly as the rewards.

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