Soft Skills Are Now Core Competencies

Leadership experts now emphasize qualitative skills such as empathy and communication with as much rigor as quantitative skills such as finance and engineering. They believe these “soft” skills should be renamed core competencies.

In my June 2022 Leading Edge column, I wrote an article on Marcus Buckingham’s latest book, “Love + Work,” titled “What’s Love Got to Do with Work?” The conclusion was that leaders need to “show the love.” One way Buckingham advocates showing “love” and paying attention is for leaders to have a weekly 15-minute “check-in” with each direct report and ask three broad questions.

  • What did you love last week?
  • What did you loathe last week?
  • What can I do to support you?

He believes that if leaders don’t have time for this simple weekly check-in with each report, then they either have too many reports or they are perpetuating a loveless workplace. He also says the culture can be predicted by how many leaders report directly to the CEO. If the number is greater than 15, the culture doesn’t support paying attention to people. If this is the case, it will be hard to retain and attract the best talent.

My July 2022 column was titled “Attract, Engage, and Retain Employees—Create a Workplace People Love.” Buckingham defines “love” as work that gives energy, nourishment, and strength. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow”—“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” When you are in the state of flow, time flies by. Buckingham refers to these flow activities as your “red threads.” Life (at home, work, school, community) is made up of many threads and some of them are red—an energy gain rather than drain.

According to Buckingham, “The most powerful predictors of retention, performance, engagement, resilience, and inclusion do not include pay or liking one’s colleagues or work location or even a strong belief in the mission of the organization.” When I interviewed Buckingham, he told me that leaders need to help their employees find their “red threads” by asking these three questions:

  • Was I excited to work every day last week?
  • Did I have a chance to use my strengths every day?
  • At work, do I get a chance to do what I’m good at and something I love?

“The Perfect Storm for Leadership Skills” was my January 2023 article. I described how the Jack Welch “command-and-control” model of leadership was no longer (or ever really) appropriate. The pandemic was the “perfect storm” for a shift in how we need to lead. One significant silver lining is how employees have been empowered to voice how they want to be treated in order to be most productive and satisfied. Leaders have had a wake-up call about how to behave, which is an anti-Jack Welch style.

Don’t Call Them Soft Skills

Leadership experts now emphasize qualitative skills such as empathy and communication with as much rigor as quantitative skills such as finance and engineering. In fact, some authors advocate not calling interpersonal skills soft.” In the article, “Stop Calling Them Soft: Why Today’s Essential Skills Are Anything But,” Lindsay Galloway interviews hiring managers who believe these skills should be renamed as core competencies or critical skills, and trained for just as employees are trained for technical skills.

There is nothing soft about these skills.

In a recent podcast interview, I was explaining the value of soft skills. The interviewer probed and asked me how to develop these skills. I replied, “Good question!”

The McKinsey Organization Blog had a post titled “How to Develop Soft Skills” that outlined why these skills are so important and how to develop them. “As automation and artificial intelligence (AI) change the nature of work, employees must fine-tune the social and emotional abilities machines cannot master. Their research underscores the importance of both developing and rewarding for soft skills now because they will only become more important.”

Research by McKinsey & Company has revealed that “jobs requiring hard skills pay twice as much as jobs requiring soft skills. To change this imbalance, employers must adjust the ways they assess, educate, train, and reward their workforce on soft skills.” Since people behave in ways that are rewarded, recognizing and rewarding soft skills is essential.

According to McKinsey, “These soft skills—non-technical skills necessary within organizations—are much harder to replicate via automation and AI, and they are at the core of this rapidly impending shift.”

How to Develop Social Skills

Soft skills or social skills are one of the main components of emotional intelligence (EQ). As detailed by Daniel Goleman’s research, “…the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence.”

Dan Rockwell, author of the blog, “Leadership Freak,” wrote a great post about how to develop social skills, which he defines as “the ability to be likeable. You know how to build rapport and manage relationships.” Since leadership is a relationship rather than a title or position, learning how to build healthy relationships is a critical skill.

Rockwell identifies three characteristics:

  1. Don’t try too hard to be liked. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge your limitations. Share what you have learned from making mistakes. Talk about what you are learning.
  2. Delight in people. While you may not like everyone, find something positive about every person on your team. Try to empathize and see situations from their situation. Ask each member of your team Buckingham’s questions shared above.
  3. Teach your face to express your heart. Rockwell says, “Your think-face is your stink-face.” Smile. Make eye contact. Treat people as if you like them and you might just change your mind.

Developing soft skills—social skills—takes practice. While it sounds easy to communicate, collaborate, empathize, be a team player, and demonstrate care and compassion, it is clearly not, and the reward system might have something to do with this. But as pointed out with how the world and workplaces are changing, now is the time to focus on becoming a more humane leader.

Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit