3 Underrated Soft Skills That Can Make Or Break Your Leadership


Paper qualifications and technical expertise can only get you so far. Soft skills are indispensable to advance into the highest rungs of the career ladder, The higher the rank, the greater the demands of leadership, and the more urgent the need for stellar people skills. After all, leadership is essentially the art of communicating, relating to, and influencing others. 


Nonetheless, it seems that for most people, not all soft skills are created equal. Communication, for instance, is a consistently popular choice among managers. Still, other equally critical yet comparatively underrated soft skills can make or break the effectiveness of any manager’s leadership. Here are three such neglected managerial soft skills. 

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1. Active Listening  

A quick Google search on “why people don’t listen to you” turns up 1.3 billion search results. In contrast, Googling “how to be a better listener” only turns up half of that search result volume. This alone tells you that most of us tend to neglect the importance of paying attention to others. According to conventional wisdom, the best leaders are good at making people listen to them. As Dale Carnegie advised, though, success is more about becoming interested in other people than getting others to be interested in you. 


In a world where everyone’s trying to make themselves heard, it’s those who’ve perfected the art of listening who’ll get ahead. These aren’t people who hear others out intending to find a counter-argument to fire back. They’re not even the ones who only pay attention to what’s being said. They’re the ones who also listen carefully to what’s not being said. 

Good listeners are experts at reading between the lines and utilising empathy to understand and respond to different perspectives. This is why they’re so valuable. Good listening skills are paramount to building strong relationships, establishing trust and psychological safety, and extracting value from communication, all of which are keys to effective leadership and personal growth.


2. Generosity

The corporate world isn’t generally associated with a giving spirit. On the contrary, it tends to be commonly characterised by adages like “it’s a dog eat dog world.” While competition is both necessary and indispensable, though, there’s also something to be said for adopting a giving mentality as a strategy for personal and career success. 

VaynerMedia CEO and serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, credits his success to his 51/49 philosophy. To build and maintain the kind of strong business relationships that can make or break your business, you need to provide 51% of the value in that relationship before you can ask for something in return from them. 


The same goes for employee performance and growth as well. According to Vaynerchuk, to get people to overdeliver and outperform your expectations of them, you need to provide 51% value to them by giving them what they’re working for first. That entails knowing what motivates and drives them at work and in life. 

Likewise, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya echoes the same sentiments. In 2016, Chobani gave its 2000-strong workforce ownership stakes in the company. According to Ulukaya, making people your top priority is the key to achieving better profits, improving lives, and strengthening communities. The more people feel appreciated and cared for, the more they’ll be willing to pour into their work and each other as well. In the long term, it organically creates a positive, purposeful culture of mutual support and resilience. 


Generosity doesn’t always have to be large-scale; consistency is critical, regardless of the size of the gesture. Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell soup, famously sent 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes to his employees over his ten years in the position. Each note highlighted specific, commendable contributions that a given employee had made. These proved to be a potent source of motivation and morale. By the time Conant left, Campbell Soup’s sales, employee engagement levels, and stock prices were all performing beyond expectations. 


3. Deep work 

Distractions have undeniably become an invasive yet inevitable part of our everyday lives. Indeed, most of us probably struggle to find a way to break free of distractions to get actual work done, instead of the other way around. Managers, in particular, managers often feel the brunt of the burden of endless distractions, from endless meetings to a constant barrage of emails, to employees continually coming in to ask for approval.


While such things are necessary for work, they also tend to take up inordinate amounts of time and leave little room for real work. In his bestselling book on deep work, Cal Newport cites knowledge workers’ over-investment in “shallow work” as the reason why we fail to perform at maximum productivity at work. As shallow work takes over our lives, our ability to enter high focus mode suffers. In reality, though, this deep work is precisely what we need to get ahead at work and in life.

That’s precisely why managers must dedicate time and space every day for solitary, high-focus work. It applies to everyone, regardless of whether they’re dispositionally introverted or not. Studies have consistently shown that having “Do-Not-Disturb” time blocks like these are necessary for maximal creativity, innovation, and even productivity.


Given the avalanche of distractions and demands that a manager faces daily, he or she must sharpen their ability to transition in and out of deep-work mode as and when necessary.

Cultivating your high-focus skills sets you apart because it enables you to do two critical things better than others can: 

  • Master difficult things quickly 
  • Produce high-quality work faster

Take Bill Gates, for example. It wasn’t just vision and business ideas that precipitated such large-scale success for him; it was also his capacity for deep work. After dropping out of Harvard, Gates spent two months in what Paul Allen calls “a prodigious feat of concentration,” to come up with the BASIC programming language for the world’s first computer. 


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