Home Leadership Let's Talk Let's Talk: Are soft skills more important than ever in leadership?

Let’s Talk: Are soft skills more important than ever in leadership?

‘Soft skills’ in leadership refer to a host of skills that differ from hard skills, and include empathy, teamwork, flexibility, positivity, adaptability and many more.

They differ from the ‘hard’ skills that we are likely to see on CVs or Cover Letters in that they have more room for debate or interpretation. For example, a proficiency in a language is either true or it’s not – easy to recognise. Soft skills, however, may be harder to recognise and measure, although it’s not impossible…

Looking at different businesses across the globe, and famous business leaders, it’s quite clear to see the type of leader they are.

  • How do they deal with change?
  • How do they communicate with their staff?
  • What do employees say about working for them?

All of these questions and answers shed light on their style of leadership. And more and more recently, we see that soft skills are deemed increasingly important, perhaps reflecting the shift of generations in the workplace.

Today we’ve gathered opening on whether soft skills, as opposed to hard skills, are as important as recent talk implies that they are.


Rosie Cairnes, VP APAC at Skillsoft

‘Soft skills’ such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving, as well as emotional judgement, professional ethics and global citizenship – are gradually becoming better appreciated. A recent paper by Deloitte Access Economics forecasted that soft skill intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000. The number of jobs in soft-skill intensive occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other occupations. This is because technical skills are changing all the time and are the most likely to be replaced by automation.”

Learning technical skills and using new technologies to work more efficiently is something we should all be committed to throughout our working lives, but don’t let this overshadow confidence in your own ability. Technical skills can be learned, but human experience is irreplaceable. If you’ve ‘been around the block’, make 2020 the year you name your price.

Jaime Nelson, Managing Director, Hotwire Australia

In times of uncertainty, it is without question that leaders must step up and guide their people through the storm. Here, soft skills like adaptability, compassion and open communication create an environment where people can trust and lean into. The current COVID-19 crisis has required business leaders to adapt quickly and suddenly, prioritising the health and safety of their people while maintaining business continuity.

At Hotwire, the focus is now on supporting our team and clients, and retaining our unique culture despite the challenges of distance. It is about balancing the business’ overall needs while also offering virtual coffee catch ups to any colleagues or friends who may be feeling a little anxious. As we adapt to the new normal, leaders who can be truly authentic, over-index their soft leadership skills, and continue to focus on their people will be in a strong position to navigate the challenges of 2020 and beyond.

Chris Dodds, co-founder and Managing Director of Digital at Icon Agency

Empathy, active listening and the ability to communicate clearly are critical soft skills for leaders and employees alike. Hard skills can be learnt. Soft skills are grown into as we mature.

They’re also the hardest to nurture as they’re often personality based. Give yourself and others time for creative thinking and experimentation. Sleep on an issue. Look at how other industries are solving common problems. Read off-topic, go deep and draw threads together. Take time to talk through early concepts with trusted colleagues and friends. Decouple from your screens, walk in a forest and let your subconscious do its thing.

And lead by example. If you don’t embrace and encourage soft skills as a leader you can’t expect others to follow and grow.

David Pich, CEO of the Institute of Managers & Leaders ANZ

As workplaces shift from physical to virtual, the emphasis will fall more and more onto management and leadership skills. Those things that seem to have acquired the rather terrible label ‘soft skills’ are going to become increasingly essential. Management and leadership skills will come to the fore as our physical work spaces change. So, now is the time for us to ‘be ready’, to prepare and to upskill. Managers must develop the skills to ensure that the people in your workforce feel supported and trust your leadership. Now is the time to communicate well, show respect and set the behaviours that create a positive work culture.

Balder Tol, General Manager, WeWork Australia & New Zealand

Soft skills are more important than ever. Here are the top three soft skills that all leaders should possess:

Be Human — And bring your whole, authentic self to work. Managers should demonstrate concern for the very real fears and anxieties that their teams could be experiencing. Even though you might not have all the answers, being available, empathetic and sharing your own vulnerabilities goes a long way in showing employees that they are not alone.

Communicate empathetically — Check in and keep in touch with people regularly. There is really no real substitute for the value of human interaction and remaining connected is key. The more deeply we understand our people’s needs, the more successful and fulfilled we can be as individuals, teams and organisations.

Think creatively — Try new things and don’t be afraid to mix things up! Switch your video on to allow remote teams to see each other. Not only talk about work, make time to share a personal anecdote or create an opportunity for people to bond on a more personal level. Host a book club, a virtual team lunch or schedule time for digital games as a group. 

Vanessa Pigrum, CEO, Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership

A resounding Yes! Leaders are being asked to make tough decisions in quick succession, which need to balance the long-term viability of their businesses with the immediate needs of the people around them. There are few clear-cut answers at the moment and leaders, more than ever, need to exercise judgement in a complex situation. External conditions are changing rapidly so what is most needed in leadership is the ability to draw from deeply-held values and ethical foundations. It certainly helps if you already have a clear understanding of your own ethical values, such as fairness and equity, and can practice the discipline of taking enough time to consider what the unintended consequences of the decision might be before you commit to it.

These soft skills, along with the ability to creatively imagine alternative future options, are critical for the clear and courageous leadership that we need right now.

Alison Hardacre, Halaxy co-founder and Managing Director

When it comes to getting a company through a time of such upheaval and uncertainty, soft skills are everything.

For us, it’s about understanding people’s current and likely emotions, and trying to put in place mechanisms to help them with this so that they can continue to deliver and make healthcare better.

Because our platform is so integral to many health care practitioners, we need to make sure that Halaxy employees are not only happy and feel well-cared for in terms of their own mental health, but also able to deal with the onslaught of calls.

We are therefore continuing Thursday home lunches online; pairing employees up for virtual coffee dates and playing online scrabble to ensure some normalcy.

Providing team support goes beyond just managing productivity: it’s about seeing your employees as human beings first, and ensuring that they feel safe and supported during one of the most difficult times the world has seen in decades.

Ross Judd, CEO of Team Focus and author of Cultural Insanity

COVID19 is teaching us valuable lessons. Wash your hands. Consider others by staying isolated if you are unwell. It’s also going to help leaders understand the importance of soft skills because they will become more important than ever as people work in isolated and virtual environments.

Humans have always needed to connect. What happens if someone is kept in isolation for too long? Why was “solitary confinement” the harshest penalty for prisoners? The truth is we need connection to survive and a strong and healthy culture to thrive. Soft skills are the key to building strong connections and a great culture. Engaging with people in conversations about the purpose of the organisation and the culture you need to deliver that purpose is the first step in creating a great culture and a great place to work.

Tom Steer, UniSA Online Executive Director

As we enter a new era in the workplace where automation and technology grows more capable of handling increasingly complex, repeatable functions, there is an even greater need for strong people skills. No machine can replicate the nuanced conversations that are required to help your employers and customers feel understood and heard, articulate a vision, spot market opportunities or collaborate with others to solve problems. These are, and will always be, some of the core attributes of great leaders.

Deloitte predicts that soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030. According to LinkedIn, the top 5 soft skills that companies need the most in 2020 are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence.

At UniSA, we call these sort of skills ‘Enterprise Skills’ and we help our students develop them throughout their studies, to prepare them for success regardless of their field or industry.

Jarrod Kinchington, Infor ANZ Managing Director

Drastic change is always very challenging, and the business world has rarely dealt with the pandemic we are facing right now with the coronavirus. We are in an entirely new, unchartered environment for society and the economy, which calls for strong and courageous leadership at all levels.

Leadership itself is commonly defined as a “soft skill”, but this term tends to downplay how critical and powerful good leadership skills are. Communication, empathy, the ability to delegate, to motivate, passion, creativity: all these are vital for successfully managing teams and ultimately growing and running a successful business. Soft skills make strong leaders.

With widespread uncertainty, leaders need strong interpersonal skills and the ability to assess risk and make potentially difficult decisions.

Michelle Gibbings, workplace expert and author of Bad Boss

The term ‘soft skills’ is a misnomer, because these so-called soft skills for example, compassion, empathy, courage, and self-awareness aren’t easily acquired.  Indeed, it’s often easier for leaders to learn the necessary technical management skills; for example, strategic thinking, analytics and forecasting, budgeting and planning. In a world that is changing and facing new challenges, we need leaders who can step up, embrace this uncertainty and be willing to lead from the front in a way that is inclusive, courageous and progressive. They can’t do that effectively when those essential soft skills are missing.

Yesh Munnangi, CEO, Rome2Rio

CEOs need to get their hands dirty and listen to their staff. Right now people want to be led from the front, not from above.

This is where soft skills are important to convey the strength and courage needed for a team in times of change. 

Leadership in this context is about working with your team to align on common priorities while reacting to external change. Qualities of empathy, authenticity and clarity will take a leader a long way in winning the attention and trust of the team.

It is also becoming increasingly important for leaders to adapt their communication style to virtual communication channels such as text messaging, audio and video to ensure communications clarity, consistency, and empathy to keep the team engaged.

Mike Featherstone, Managing Director, ANZ/APAC, Pluralsight 

The need for soft-skills in the technology industry is now more important than ever before. Hard-skills are always able to be taught to those who have a strong foundation of soft-skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, innovation, and a strong willingness and desire to learn. Skills like these not only enable leaders to maintain a competitive edge, but it also allows them to lead by example so that employees and wider teams can adopt and mirror the same kind of soft skills.

Leaders with a strong foundation of soft skills such as adaptability and agility are best positioned to succeed within an industry that is under constant change. They’re best prepared to constantly keep up with an evolving tech landscape and take necessary actions to stay ahead of the tech trend curve. As a leader, a critical action is to implement a tech skills development platform so that everyone from senior management, to entry-level employees have the opportunity to fuel soft skills. The desire to continuously develop while simultaneously remaining ahead of the game will ultimately pave the path for innovation.

Lucy Liu, Co-Founder and President, Airwallex 

I have always championed the importance of soft skills in effective leadership, but in these difficult and uncertain times, more now than ever.

Any crisis requires teams to adapt – whether it be an internal challenge that exclusively impacts your business, or a universal pandemic that affects us all. To get the best out of your staff and achieve a coordinated team spirit that will ride you through the storm, communication is everything.

A strong leader must listen to the concerns in their networks and take action to address these as best as they can. While some things are out of your control, a leader who demonstrates empathy and a desire to help alleviate others’ stresses will be rewarded – whether that be employee retention, returning customers or positive brand association.

Jaquie Scammell, customer service specialist and author of Service Habits

With people’s livelihoods significantly impacted overnight, individual wealth destruction, increased anxiety and more sensitive, fearful employees and customers; leaders need to be more in touch with their heart and strengthen the skills of the heart. More specifically, dial up their emotional and social intelligence and practice mastering; self-awareness of their own behaviour, developing a better understanding of others, and having the ability to manage themselves in a world full of ambiguity and change. Now is the time for leaders to reprogram their default behaviours and create – relationship strengthening habits for life.

Angus Dorney, Kablamo Co-CEO

Disagree: soft skills are always important in leadership. It defines the difference between a manager and a leader. In these times, that doesn’t change, it just means that some soft skills will be utilised more than others. Being physically present, observant and supportive in the office was one of the first steps to being a leader. With that option gone, other soft skills of communication, emotional intelligence and a flexible, positive attitude come into play across the optical fibres. Each virtual meeting, and the first email of the day, needs to begin with checking in to see how each colleague is managing the new conditions in these uncertain times. Previously, this would have been done as you entered the office, greeting everyone and seeing how they are. This new dynamic requires leaders to be sensitive to their employees’ state of mind, and to be aware of their own behaviour in order to keep the trust, respect and collaboration evolving, despite the distances. But then, you should have been doing that before.

At Kablamo, we’ve been working remotely — whether from homes or client offices — for a while now, and we’ve established ways to keep the team connected and supported. Communication, and positive messages is a big part of that. We use apps to share personal stories, memes and praise. It’s not all about the work and corporate goals – especially when we are reforming our lives into a new paradigm, and getting by one day at a time.

If you can’t catch up individually or even every day, then group catchups are critical. We have always had a fortnightly “back to base” but have now added an optional weekly catchup where anyone can throw questions they may have at the leadership team.

Dr Karen Morley, leadership specialist and author of Beat Gender Bias

Growth, innovation and change increasingly feature in the future of work. McKinsey research shows that as much as 50% of work could be automated by 2055; half the activities that exist now won’t be needed. And forget the future; Covid-19 is testing everyone’s soft skills right now. Soft skills are the ones that won’t be automated; we’ll only ever need more of them. If leaders are unable to generate a sense of optimism and hope, to bolster resilience and care for their teams, we’ll face massive motivational issues very soon. Skills like kindness, generosity and trust get you engagement and productivity. That makes focusing on them essential. Organisations that have been fostering soft skills have a definite advantage right now.