The Most Important Soft Skills for Leaders

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” — Steve Jobs

Innovative leaders recognize that their success goes beyond meeting quotas, launching products, or being experts. Leadership also means empowering employees to grow, nurturing their potential, and inspiring them to share a vision for the future of the organization. It certainly doesn’t mean dictating or micromanaging.

Many factors determine a leader’s success, including whether or not they have the right blend of hard and soft skills. Hard skills are necessary to execute work. Being proficient in a particular coding language is a hard skill for a developer. Knowing how to scope a project is a hard skill for a project manager. Understanding financial regulations is a hard skill for an accountant.

Hard skills on their own don’t translate to effective leadership, however. Leadership requires soft skills as well.

In addition to on-the-job experience, an advanced education can help budding business leaders develop and refine key soft skills.

What Are Soft Skills, and Why Are They Important?

Soft skills for leaders are more nuanced than hard skills. They’re interpersonal skills and character traits that transcend industries. Communication skills help developers present work to a client. Emotional intelligence helps project managers traffic work between teams for approvals. Critical thinking skills help accountants make connections between data points.An executive leads a meeting around a conference table.

While hard skills are obviously still crucial, employers are increasingly recognizing how vital soft skills are. According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 91% of talent professionals said the growing importance of soft skills was transforming the future of recruiting and human resources, with 92% noting that they matter as much or more than hard skills.

Someone who demonstrates soft skills can inspire others to follow them. Soft skills help leaders motivate employees, keep clients happy, and encourage teamwork. Great leaders often make a lasting impression on their employees because of their soft skills.

6 Important Soft Skills for Leaders

Empathy and flexibility may seem like secondary skills, but they’re essential to innovating and making high-level decisions. Below are some of the most important soft skills for leaders to master:

1. Interpersonal Communication and Listening

Being able to clearly articulate ideas and stories can help make a leader more persuasive, but they must know how to listen closely, too. Following up on responses in a meaningful way establishes trust and improves collaboration.

2. Critical Thinking

Curiosity is key to leadership. Thoughtful analysis of relevant data can reveal connections and creative solutions beyond what’s obvious. Critical-thinking skills will inform other leadership soft skills, such as problem-solving.

3. Decisiveness

Making the right decisions requires context, expertise, and knowing what’s at stake. Leaders often must make choices that balance employees’ needs with the best interests of the organization. Inspirational leaders not only are confident in their decisions, they also have the integrity to hold themselves responsible for the outcome.

4. Emotional Intelligence

Effective leaders are able to manage their emotions and have empathy for the feelings and motivations of others. Leaders who have developed these skills, which are central to emotional intelligence, can more easily resolve conflicts and build stronger connections with their employees.

5. Delegation

The ability of a leader to assign work to the right people based on their strengths, goals, and workload can make or break a team. Strategic delegation can motivate employees to grow and take on more responsibility, and it makes for a collaborative, productive environment.

6. Flexibility

Some circumstances are difficult or impossible for a leader to control. Budgets change, employees leave, and priorities shift. When leaders can adapt to changing circumstances and make decisions that support their team in times of turbulence, they gain their employees’ trust.

How to Develop Soft Skills for Leadership

With some dedication and self-awareness, professionals who want to accelerate their careers can develop the necessary soft skills for leaders. Here are a few techniques:

Practice Self-Reflection

Aspiring leaders can assess the soft skills they already have and leverage them to improve in other areas. For instance, if they are emotionally intelligent but tend to avoid difficult decisions, they may be able to harness their natural empathy to become stronger delegators.

Observe Leadership Soft Skills in Others

Studying influential leaders and noticing how they solve problems, respond to feedback, and inspire others to follow their lead is a great way for professionals to learn about the subtleties and impact of soft skills.

Work with a Mentor

Leaders often enjoy sharing their insights and helping others improve their leadership skills. Asking a leader about challenging situations they’ve encountered and what they would do differently today can be enlightening.

Seek Opportunities to Practice Soft Skills

Those who want to become leaders may benefit by showing they’re ready for the challenge. They may volunteer for more responsibility, initiate new projects, or build relationships with other teams. Seeking these opportunities demonstrates leadership qualities and can be valuable practice.

Adopt a Mindset of Learning

It takes courage to ask for honest feedback, but it’s essential for growth. Ambitious employees can ask colleagues and leaders how they can improve their interpersonal skills. Listening with an open mind and committing to making improvements can be beneficial over time.

Pursue Advanced Education

Aspiring leaders can benefit from studying the techniques used in other organizations and industries. To get exposure to a diversity of perspectives, they can continue their education in business leadership, such as in an Executive Master of Business Administration program. This provides the space for them to develop soft skills with real-time feedback from cohorts and professors.

Leadership Based on a Foundation of Soft Skills

Leaders need a strong set of soft skills to navigate important decisions, create meaningful connections, and prepare for increasing responsibilities. These skills are often just as important as technical expertise.

If you’re interested in learning more about soft skills for leaders while growing your professional network, consider enrolling in Washington State University’s Online EMBA program. Led by expert faculty from a wide range of industries, the 100% online program is designed to help business professionals hone the necessary skills to become more effective leaders.

Learn how WSU can help you refine your soft skills and make a bigger impact in your industry.


Recommended Readings

7 Key Competencies for Global Business Leadership

4 Tips for Managing Change in the Workplace

Benefits of Executive Coaching: What It Means for Leadership Improvement



BetterUp, “9 Soft Skills for Leadership and Employees to Hone”

Forbes, “The Best Sentence I Ever Read About Managing Talent”

Forbes, “How Strong Are Your Leadership Soft Skills?”

Indeed, “21 Soft Skills for Leadership Success”

Investopedia, “What Are Soft Skills? Definition, Importance, and Examples”

LinkedIn, “LinkedIn Report: These 4 Ideas Are Shaping the Future of HR and Hiring”

Robert Half, “8 Ways to Strengthen Your Business Leadership Skills”

TalentLMS, “Developing Soft Skills in the Workplace: The Whys and the Hows”