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AAL Newsletter

Why Soft Skills Aren’t “Soft”

by Marcia M. Ditmyer, Ph.D.
Marcia Ditmyer

Today, emerging leaders will likely have a degree…

… Technical qualifications (competent to perform the tasks)…

…and work experience …

…but what about the personal attributes that enable leaders to interact effectively and harmoniously with others?

“Soft” introduces a spectrum of connotations. Where skills or competencies are concerned, the term is juxtaposed to “hard.” The implication is that hard skills are somehow substantial, while soft skills are somewhat ethereal.  Some might believe that soft skills are easier to acquire and less demanding than the rigor necessary to develop hard skills. These nuances might spring from our notions of the sciences—empirical, measurable, practical—compared to the humanities—intuitive, indefinite, and valued as intrinsically good rather than instrumentally so.

Rather than soft, I suggest we think of these skills as essential skills for leaders. Technical or “hard skills” are non-essential. In leadership, one can find people who can do the technical things, but communication, motivation, social adeptness, vision—essential skills for leadership—are harder to come by. Hard skills are less important as one assumes more responsibility as a leader; so-called “soft skills” are the sine qua non for effective leadership. They are essential.

Today’s emerging leaders must display innovative, cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills in the broadest possible sense. Interpersonal and relationship-building skills help people communicate and collaborate effectively. Such skills are overlooked and undervalued by many of today’s students, faculty, and administrators.

What are these leadership skills and why are they so critical?  These essential skills include:

  • Effective communication
  • Acting as a team player
  • Networking
  • Problem solving and critical thinking
  • Professionalism
  • Accepting feedback and applying lessons learned
  • Working collaboratively
  • Managing time
  • Personal confidence
  • Social integrity

These are skills that will help anyone in a wide range of jobs, not just a current or target position.

To get and keep a job, one must be competent in certain technical skills. However, given the same technical skills and level of competence, what is the primary reason one person is chosen over another for promotion and advancement?  While the technical skills and competency get one’s foot in the door, essential leadership skills push that door open wide.  One mistake that should not be overlooked is the assumption these essential skills are easily mastered. Many people never become competent in these interpersonal abilities and never fulfill their potential.

The work environment has evolved and the interpersonal dynamic no longer can be ignored. The acts of listening, presenting ideas, resolving conflict, and fostering an open and honest work environment all come down to knowing how to build and maintain relationships with people. It’s those relationships that allow people to participate fully in team projects, show appreciation for others, and enlist support for their projects.

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