Why Leaders need Soft Skills

Our guest blog this month is by Neil Mullarkey. An associate of Caffeine, we work together to help leaders using improvisational theatre to enhance people’s skills in communication, leadership and innovation.

Are there too many leadership books? Too many big ideas?
What does it actually mean to be, say, a Servant Leader on a Tuesday morning when you’re a bit tired and you just want Fred to get on and finish that thing? Why not just tell him exactly how to do it and save time? Sure, you want to be an Adaptive Leader but he’s sitting in your office and he might just need a cuddle (metaphorically, of course). Or even just a laugh. Good to Great, but even better, Good to Giggle.

Then there are the more ‘self-helpy’ times where the only ‘real’ way to become a leader is to embrace your inner child or sweat out the old you in a teepee and cry yourself to enlightenment and re-examine your attitude to cheese. Good to Grate?

So I set out to write a book that was down-to-earth, looking at the everyday people skills that will get you through the week, whatever your role.
The phrase ‘soft skills’ is bandied about a lot (sometimes in a good way, sometimes not) but it covers so much – from being empathetic and inspiring but also prioritisation, delegation, and decision-making. So what is NOT a soft skill? Something that involves spreadsheets? A hammer? Hitting something? Metal? Oil/dirt/mud? A stethoscope? Algorithms? A gun?

The World Economic Forum published a report into education in March 2016. People today need to collaborate, communicate and solve problems. Social skills are downplayed because, seemingly, we find them harder to measure. But people ask me to work with teams or individuals for hard business reasons.

Staying with the World Economic Forum (because they are not just a bunch of softies are they?), their report published in Davos in 2016, called ‘The Future of Jobs’ addressed the issue of skills as we undergo the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technological disruption is ‘shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets.’ By 2020 the crucial skills will be ‘persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others‘. These will be in more demand than ‘narrow technical skills such as programming or equipment operation and control.’ Creative and interpersonal skills will be vital.

IBM is in the market for playwrights and poets, ‘who have a keen eye for human behaviour and are adept at designing for ambiguous, complex verbal and non-verbal interactions.’ In other words, no matter how advanced the robot may be, a human will need to help it with its ‘soft skills’. Did you know that when you click ‘chat now’ on a website, you may well be speaking to a bot? But it’s probably been on a creative writing course at the weekend.

Fascinatingly, there is even archaeological evidence that our brain evolved to be bigger just to deal with the challenge of figuring out other people and predicting how they might react.

Hilary French, Headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls gave a speech recently in which she said, ‘The ability to filter ideas and knowledge and to practise what we misguidedly call the ‘soft skills’ are fast becoming bigger educational ‘must haves’ than a string of top examination results’. ‘What is ‘soft’ about having the skill to communicate, to keep actively learning and adapting to the world around you?’

Good point. Now go and tell Fred he can have the morning off to read my book.

(Author’s disclaimer: Nothing should be inferred from my use of the name Fred or masculine pronoun)

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT NEIL’S BOOK AT http://sevensteps.neilmullarkey.com/

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