15 Essential Soft Skills for Every Successful Leader
You might have the best technical skills in your company, but it’s the soft skills - the people skills and vision - that mark the difference between a successful leader and merely a skilled employee.
These soft skills dictate:
- How you interact with others
- How you handle conflict and strategic planning
- Whether people like working with you
- How productive you and your team are
- And more
That’s why I’m going to help you. I want to show you how to develop and improve 15 soft skills that are essential for every successful leader to produce the results they want.
What does it take to be a successful leader?
1. Develop and coach your peers.
Coaching is working alongside someone to help them improve, and it’s a major task for every leader. Unfortunately, it’s often replaced with either neglect or micromanaging.
Good coaches do what it takes to build better people, and good coaching involves regular feedback and education. As you watch employees work, or see what they produce, ask them how things are going.
- What are they struggling with?
- Where do you think they can improve?
- How can you help them grasp a deeper understanding of their role and how it fits into the rest of the company?
More importantly, as you work closely with each person, continually ask How will this person best improve? It could be through practice, training, reading a book, or one-on-one conversations.
2. Motivate and inspire your team.
Motivating is a tall order! Especially since each person is likely motivated by something different. But it isn’t necessarily about getting people psyched up to come to work each day.
Motivating and inspiring your team is about giving people what they need to do their best work and give their best effort.
You can motivate by:
- Providing bonuses when people reach certain KPI (key performance indicator) goals
- Listening to understand whenever someone talks to you
- Offering flexible working hours and time off
- Sharing inspirational videos or quotes
- Smiling when you see people
- Building on an employee’s intrinsic motivation
- And myriad other ways
This is a difficult soft skill for many leaders. You’ve gotten really good at doing your job - and at focusing on your own motivators to do it. But you haven’t spent as much time learning how to help others do their jobs well and staying motivated.
That’s okay. What’s important is that you start weaving it into your routine.
3. Communicate clearly and openly.
You need to communicate with lots of people in various places through a variety of channels. This makes it difficult to keep everyone on the same page, so how can you communicate efficiently without being curt?
For starters, you need to actually communicate.
If you’d like to see [XYZ] happen, you need to voice it. Too many managers try to let things “work themselves out.” Sometimes they do, but often things remain the same or get worse.
So step in. And when you step in, be considerate. Emails, texts, and instant messages are great communication tools, but you have to make sure your message doesn’t get lost in the medium.
People still look for mannerisms, tone, and other characteristics of speech in written communications. If you think something you say might come off poorly in an email or text, don’t send it. Call the person or speak to them face-to-face and make it clear that you aren’t trying to attack them.
4. Recognize and reward good work.
It's miserable to give all you have and receive nothing in return. There are no participation trophies in business, but successful leaders acknowledge good, hard work when when they see it - and here’s why.
Recognition is a huge motivator, morale booster, and (if backed financially) can change an employee’s life for the better. Recognition is what everyone desires when they put their heart and soul into their work. It’s validation at its finest.
Whenever that heart and soul produces good things for your company, you need to let your employee(s) know that you're paying attention - that you’re thankful and appreciate the value they’re bringing. The most successful leaders are effectively cheerleaders for those they lead.
5. Take the lead on projects.
Anyone in a management position is going to be responsible for organizing and managing projects. (They will at least be held responsible for the results of any projects.) But successful leaders initiate.
They say Team, here’s what we need to do, and they jump start the process to make it happen, whether that means delegating work to others or doing the work themselves. Successful leaders are the organizers, planners, and task schedulers that drive progress in an organization.
Another way to phrase this is execution. If you or someone on your team has a good idea, it’s your job to make sure it comes to fruition. For more on project management leadership, view this guide: The Five Team Leadership Principles for Project Success.
6. Learn continuously (and look for opportunities to do so).
It’s crucial for you to continually develop your team, but it’s just as important that you continuously develop yourself.
This can be challenging. You have so many things to do that learning can seem unimportant (or unproductive). But remember - everything’s easy when you know how to do it.
Try working time into your schedule for self-development, whether that’s time for reading, talks with others you respect, or informative conferences. Over time, this will become a staple of your schedule, and you will find yourself improving in leaps and bounds.
7. Champion having fun at work.
Work hours take up most of our daily schedules, so why not make them enjoyable? In fact, happy employees are more productive. The most successful leaders help their team start and end the day with smiles on their faces, despite what happens in between.
There are plenty of ways to have more fun at work while also staying professional and getting everything done. A few good options are:
- Organized events like team night out or catered lunch
- Sharing jokes or words of encouragement throughout the day
- And relaxing strict dress codes or formal work hours
8. Hire the right people.
Surrounding yourself with the right people will make everything you do easier and better, but it’s perhaps the most difficult skill for anyone to get right.
Who are the right people, how can you tell, and how to you bring them in?
One mistake many leaders make is hiring people who can do a task well. It’s tempting - and logical - but there are other attributes to look for.
- Does this person genuinely care about your values and/or mission?
- Are they kind? Do they play well with others?
- Could this person help you and your company with more than what’s in the job description?
- Why do they want to do this job specifically for your company?
- Do they bring anything new or different that other employees don’t?
Successful leaders recruit candidates who bring potential and value to more than just a specific job function. They’re also patient while they search for these top notch team members.
9. Resolve conflict with poise.
There’s always potential for conflict. Different people have different thoughts and opinions, and those will occasionally collide. The issue, however, is not the conflict, but how you respond.
The best leaders address conflict head on while remaining respectful to others involved. In some cases that means you need to “disagree and commit.” If you’re the only one disagreeing, you may need to say “I disagree with this idea, but I’m willing to move forward with you.”
You might not be in HR, but you’ll still have to handle conflict between employees. Sometimes it will be petty and sometimes and it will be large and legitimate. In all cases, you need to have the courage to address this conflict early (before it has time to fester), and you need to show empathy to everyone involved.
10. Grow and implement emotional intelligence.
The most successful leaders are very good at managing their emotions, whether it’s stress, anger, excitement, or some other reaction.
There are lots of ways to improve this soft skill, including:
- Learning to recognize physiological signs, like an increased heart rate
- Meditating, or taking quiet time to reflect on the choices you make in a given situation
- Asking your co-workers for feedback on how you handle yourself
When you better control your emotions, you also better control your words and your actions. That gives you immense power to handle situations better and lead your team to accomplishing common goals.
11. Stay organized.
Strong leaders keep their tasks, their projects, their teams, and their belongings organized. You’re juggling a lot of things, and you have to keep them all organized to continue moving in the right direction.
There are lots of ways to remain organized (such as by keeping your desk and email inbox tidy), and there are plenty of online tools to help you organize your tasks (such as Trello). Find what works for you and stick to it.
12. Empower your employees (and others you interact with).
The best leaders encourage colleagues and help them to produce their best work. You can do this by:
- Acknowledging the good work someone has already done, which encourages them to do more
- Asking “How can we make this better?” instead of saying “Here’s what you did wrong”
- Taking a “closed door, open calendar” approach to mentoring
You’ll know you’re succeeding in empowering your employees when they feel free and confident to make their own decisions, even when they don’t have all the information they might need (which is a common situation in business).
13. Round out your business skills.
The best leaders are really good at seeing how staff, budgets, KPIs, vision, ideas, values, and more work in conjunction with each other - both in their department and across the company. This is why they’re such good decision makers.
To round out your business acumen, you need experience in all aspects of business. That’s one selling point of an MBA, but you can get similar benefits by either taking online courses (Udemy has plenty, and many universities offer free online classes), or by spending time with people in different departments of your business.
For instance, if you work in marketing, it will be good for you to take a couple hours a week speaking to employees in IT, or Sales, or HR, and so on.
Once you have a full grasp of how everything works and moves together, you’ll be able to best judge how an idea or strategy fits into your short-, med-, and long-term goals.
14. Set high expectations - and meet them.
Setting low targets might help you “exceed expectations,” but successful leaders set high expectations, and then lead themselves and their teams to hitting those goals. How do they do it?
They take big goals and chop them down into small (sometimes menial) tasks they can accomplish - like in the video below.
One thing to be leery of is keeping your high expectations realistic. “We’re going to double revenue in nine months” sounds great, but it’s going to end in disappointment unless you have a defined strategy you know you can stick to to reach your goal.
15. Learn from your data.
Data - everything from your web traffic to sales ratios and beyond - is always speaking to you. Do you know how to interpret it correctly?
A paramount soft skill for successful leaders is the ability to gain insights from your analytics. By finding the holes, learning more about your customers, and determining where you can improve, you’ll increase customer engagement, sales, employee retention. You’ll be able to cut costs and make better all-around decisions.
The trouble is, every company has different data, so here's a guide to asking the right questions and getting value out of your analytics: The Top 10 Strategies to Turn Data into Actionable Analytics.
There’s no one skill that you can develop to become a successful leader. It takes more than just being kind or knowing how to “do your job.”
The essential soft skills listed in this article represent most of what it takes to become a successful leader. The only caveat is time.
It takes time to develop any skill, and you often have to work through a tough learning curve. By following the advice in this article over months and years, you’ll develop all the skills necessary to lead an amazing company that’s built to last. Does that sound good to you?