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The most critical skills for leaders are fundamentally human

September 2, 2019 - 12 min read
The Most Critical Skills for Leaders Are Fundamentally Human

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The importance of soft skills

Five critical skills

Leverage the best of your humanity

In a recent blog, I shared a new model for developing the leaders of today and  tomorrow. I advocated for replacing one-and-done trainings with approaches that are ongoing, personalized, bite-sized, and embedded within the flow of the work day. In this blog, I zoom into what leadership development should cover, sharing what I consider to be the most critical skills for future-ready leaders. I will explain what each of these skills means in the context of work and leadership, and provide ideas for how to cultivate them within yourself.

The importance of soft skills

In Josh Bersin’s article, “Why Leadership Development Feels Broken: And How We’re Fixing It,” he says, “Today great leaders drive change through their reputation, ability to empower people, willingness to experiment, and focus on developing people and their teams.” Bersin’s webinar on the same topic also points to the critical importance of soft skills in the workplace, which recent data supports. According to a study by Deloitte, 92 percent of executives rate soft skills as a critical priority for operating in today’s dynamic business environment. 

So, at a time when the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation has impacted every industry—changing the very nature of how we work—enterprise leaders are realizing that our unique value add as employees isn’t machine-based, it’s found in our humanness. And that’s why today’s workplace is re-evaluating and re-valuing people skills, such as collaboration, communication, and negotiation. While hard skills remain an important asset in this new world of work, the specific skills being called for are always changing as the modern workplace evolves. For that reason, soft skill training is the more reliable and sustainable lever for driving success. 

Five critical skills

  1. Creativity: Turning challenge into opportunity

According to LinkedIn, creativity is the number one most in-demand soft skill in short supply. In this white water world of work, creativity helps organizations maintain peak performance in the face of constant change. Creativity is needed in every role to solve problems, innovate at product and service levels, and help organizations create new sources of value. As leaders, creativity helps us turn challenge into opportunity. For example, whenever resources are constrained (time, capital, or support), it takes creativity to solve pressing problems in order to meet or exceed individual or team performance goals. 

Here’s an idea for how to foster creativity: Many tend to think of creativity as an inborn gift, but the seeds of creativity exist within all of us, and can be, like any skill, developed. The process for achieving growth in this area can be quite fun. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Wired to Create, weird experiences boost creativity. And these don’t need to be (all that) far out of your comfort zone. “If you want to get into a creative mindset,” Kaufman writes, “do your normal routine in a completely different way. Write with your other hand. Moonwalk backward on your way to work. Eat something new for lunch. Smile at strangers. Be weird. With your brain re-shuffled, you’ll be in a better position to be creative.”

  1. Flow: The experience of total immersion

One skill that stands out for its capacity to support creativity and peak performance is flow. Flow is a state of consciousness that allows for complete immersion in a task—something that is so important in today’s frenetic, distraction-filled workplace. According to renowned researcher and professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow occurs when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Research from McKinsey & Company found that increasing time spent in flow by 15–20% can double employee productivity. As we consider the modern landscape of constant change and new challenges, it’s relevant to note that flow is also associated with a positive response to challenge.

We often hear of athletes and performers being “in the groove” or “in the zone,” but is flow really something we can cultivate at work? Absolutely. Studies suggest that work provides the most optimal conditions for flow for adults, provided we set ourselves and our team up for success.

Here is one helpful practice: Create Flow Zones by blocking off several two-hour time slots in your calendar to focus on a single, worthwhile task that is in your zone of optimal challenge. Make sure you turn off all notifications, and guard yourself from distractions so you have the opportunity to fully immerse. Encourage your team members to do the same. Protecting your time in this way, and setting yourself up for success will not only boost productivity and the quality of your work, but will also provide the immersive experience that our brains crave.

  1. Coaching: A leadership style that helps others reach their full potential

As organizations shift away from traditional hierarchies, and leadership becomes more collaborative, it’s no surprise that being a good coach is recognized as the number one most important skill that makes someone an effective manager. Not only is it effective, but developing managers as coaches is also critical for retaining top talent. A survey from Gallup found that “the opportunity to learn and grow” is one of the three most important factors for retaining millennials, the most highly-represented generation in today’s workforce.

One important aspect of cultivating a coaching style is to recognize the strengths and the potential in others. In the words of Pete Carroll, one of the NFL’s most effective turnaround coaches, “Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.”

For some, the reminder to recognize strengths and identify potential may be enough. For those to whom this doesn’t come naturally, I recommend strengths spotting, a practice from positive psychology that involves intentionally recognizing the strengths in others. Start by creating a list that includes the names of each member of your team. Then, write down at least three strengths for each individual—so you’re ready to share as needed when your team members need that little nudge. If you find yourself struggling to identify strengths and potential, this indicates that this is an opportune area for growth, and could be great fodder for a conversation with your own coach.

  1. Growth Mindset: Believing you can grow becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

Perhaps even more foundational than one’s leadership style is one’s mindset. A growth mindset, a term coined by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, refers to the extent to which an individual considers their talents and abilities to be malleable. It has been dubbed the mindset of success because having a growth mindset helps us approach challenges with gusto, recover more quickly from setbacks, and improve our capacity as leaders. In companies with a growth mindset culture, employees are 34% likelier to feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the company and 49% likelier to say that the company fosters innovation.

Here’s one tip for how to nurture a growth mindset: According to Dweck, no one has a growth mindset 100% of the time, and everyone has room to develop, so when you find yourself in a fixed mindset thinking, “I was not made for this” or “This is so much easier for people who know how to do this,” make the choice to challenge your thoughts by asking, “How can I grow from this?”

  1. Building Relationships: Connect in a way that promotes trust and inclusivity for all

The ability to build relationships in a way that builds trust and inclusivity—not just one-on-one, but with a team or group—is critical for modern leadership. While most leaders want to be inclusive, the reality is that organizations have a long way to go in creating environments and cultures in which all employees can feel safe and be able to thrive. In fact, as LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report found, recognizing the need to reduce and eliminate workplace harassment has become a business necessity, ranking as one of four key trends changing the workplace today. Building a culture of respect and inclusion is a critical need.

One wayleaders can contribute to building respectful, inclusive culture is to work towards creating environments characterized by psychological safety, or environments in which everyone feels space to show up and speak up. Psychological safety is, according to Google re:Work, by far the most critical dynamic for effective teams. According to BetterUp’s Head of Coaching, Dr. Jacinta Jimenez, one way to create psychological safety is to not accept “unsafe” behavior. For example, she says, “If a team member engages in undermining, shaming, or any behavior that discourages others to speak up such as saying ‘that doesn’t make any sense,’ don’t condone or ignore this behavior.” In other words, do something about it. Have processes in place, and also demonstrate to employees that—when they speak up for the good of their fellow workers and the company culture—they will be heard and appreciated.

Leverage the best of your humanity

In the age of AI and automation, it is—almost ironically— our “humanness” that sets us apart, as individuals and employees. In the face of constant change, it becomes even more important that we learn how to—and are encouraged to—leverage the skills that help us thrive in the midst of the challenges of today and tomorrow. As we have seen, it’s the soft skills—such as creativity, flow, coaching, mindset, and collaboration—that set us up for success and help us up our game when the stakes are high, in life and business.New call-to-action

Published September 2, 2019

Dr. Damian Vaughn, PhD

Chief Programs Officer

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