We've all heard about hard skills and soft skills. Those aren't the ones that trip up leaders.
For too long, we’ve thought of “hard skills” and “soft skills” as mutually exclusive. Hard skills are supposed to provide the value, and soft skills supposed to be subordinate, inferior, and all about feelings. Some frameworks of leadership reinforce this myth by encouraging positioning leaders as above the group and magically removed from doubt and anxiety.
In reality, there is nothing “soft” about the skills needed to relate to people well enough to lead them. True leadership involves both hard skills and harder skills.
Here’s what I mean.
Defining Hard and Soft Skills
“Hard skills” are often thought of as the occupational skills necessary to complete the tangible elements of a job. A software engineer needs to know certain languages to build applications; a finance director needs to know how to balance the books; and a waiter needs to know how to take a dinner order, place it with the kitchen, and deliver the meal to the table.
“Soft skills” can be seen as the behavioral ways in which people go about their occupational tasks. How does the software engineer collaborate with fellow engineers to unpack hidden technical challenges? How does the finance director interact with colleagues to glean the meaning behind the numbers? How does the waiter engage with guests to make their visit a memorable occasion, and not just a meal?
Hard skills can get the job done. Soft skills make the difference between a job that gets done and a job that gets done exceedingly well. Leadership requires a sophisticated approach to both. That’s even harder.
Leadership’s Hard and Soft Skills
Leadership has its own set of occupational skills, such as the ability to synthesize data; the clarity to make timely and informed decisions; the capability to define priorities and goals; and the aptitude to see situations from a wide, organizational perspective.
On the behavioral side, leadership requires an exceedingly high degree of skill in working with and for others, holding others accountable to their commitments, and marshaling others to work together while following you into the future.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to embrace leadership responsibilities and instead busy themselves with non-leadership tasks - the work their teams should be doing. We see this in the vp of engineering who monitors engineers checking in code; in the CFO who insists on completing the routine details of closing a sale; or the sous chef who won’t let each station chef work independently enough.
The more your role involves leadership, the more your job must focus on blending the occupational and the behavioral, the technical and the interpersonal, the hard and the soft. If you cannot achieve this internal balance, your organization will suffer a similar lack of equilibrium.
This balance can be exceeding difficult, because many people define themselves by their ability to be experts in their occupational skills while viewing behavioral skills as secondary or incidental. In this way, especially for leaders, traditional “soft” skills are harder to get right.
Leadership’s Harder Skills
Many leaders end up over-compensating. We’ve all known the leader so focused on goals that she is unable to relate to her people, or the leader who can’t focus enough on goals because he wants to avoid the tension required to unite around a shared purpose.
A good approach is to recognize and accept that 1) the occupational skills of leadership are much different than those of everyone else, and 2) because leadership at any level is necessarily about other people, leaders must be aware of their behavior, and be visible to others, in ways that non-leaders don’t have to be.
This is one reason that leadership behavior is harder - as a leader, you don’t have the convenience of behaving only for yourself. You must behave for others. Many leaders fail, or fail to develop, because they are stuck in an old mindset and continue to act for themselves.
Improving Your Harder Skills
Ultimately, leadership is hard because relating to people is challenging. It’s that simple. Here are three tips for improving your harder skills.
1. Admit that inter-personal skills are important. I have worked with leaders who resist improving their inter-personal skills because they fear it shows weakness to superiors, peers, and subordinates. This is hardly a helpful path for developing better leaders, as it denies the basic truth that if I expect to lead others, I must first be able to lead myself. Don’t be afraid of this work.
2. Rethink your definitions of “hard” and “soft” skills. Ask yourself, “How do I define and exercise my hard and soft skills? Do I try to keep them separate? Do I focus on leadership responsibilities, or am I skill occupied with a non-leadership perspective? How can I approach my next challenge with a greater sense of the needed harder skills?”
3. Get some help. It is difficult to identify how our default behaviors and habits affect others. Learning to make different or new choices requires the structure and support of a good coaching process.
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