Why soft skills are the hardest skills of all

Dare To Lead Soft Skills Kylie Lewis

If I asked you the question, what is the hardest part about your work as a business owner, a manager, a collaborator, a creator, a team member, what might your answer be?

My guess is while you might go straight to thinking about ‘hard skills’ like balancing a budget, creating a new design, working out a formula in excel (although don’t ask me a thing about pivot tables), reviewing a strategic plan, devising a sales funnel or drafting position descriptions, given a moment longer to respond your answer will be something different.

Time and time again people will say that the hardest thing at work is showing up in hard conversations with others. And yet having conversations, cultivating trust, risking vulnerability and building psychological safety at work are traditionally thought of a ‘soft skills’. But remember how you felt when you were on the receiving end of critical feedback. Remember when you had to conduct a performance review with a disengaged employee. Remember when you didn’t understand what was expected from you, or when you made a mistake. Remember when you dared to speak up (or didn’t) when unethical decision making was occurring. Remember when your workload was unmanageable but you didn’t know how to push back or who would listen.

Showing up as a full human being at work, who is powered by an operating system that needs psychological safety in order to perform, means that the things that happen within us and between us that are the hardest skills of all to master.

How well do you manage the space inside our own head and heart when they’re required to interact with the heads and hearts of others? How do you learn the skills to have a constructive conversation about performance, to risk putting a new idea out there, to challenge the status quo, to speak the unspoken and to speak truth to power? Our ability to find our own moral courage, to develop the language, tools and relationship intelligence to be a fully formed, constructive human at work does not happen with conscious awareness, practice and skill building.

In 2018 in Australia alone, we had a series of catastrophic leadership failures: the third change of prime minister by the current government, a banking royal commission, a royal commission into aged care, the sacking of the CEO and Chairperson of the ABC, the sacking of the Australian cricket captain for ball tampering. We had a leadership crisis. And it’s not because we lacked ‘hard’ skills. All of these leaders were undoubtedly technically competent.

But undoubtedly what was lacking was self-awareness of values, an absence of integrity and a lack of personal accountability. So what kinds of leaders do we need today?

We need the ones who will speak truth to power, who will defy, push back, break through and create new paths. Who will do it through collaboration, diverse smarts, committed listening and inclusivity of perspectives. Who are stubbornly optimistic, generous of heart, radically compassionate, deeply self-aware, who are willing to fall because they know how to rise, and who lead with an unwavering conviction of doing what is right for the world.

We can’t change the world, without changing how we work, lead, live and love. And we can’t do that without changing ourselves and digging into what it is to show up fully in our lives.

And that is the hardest work we’ll ever do.

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