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Can you teach leaders soft skills?

It’s crucial for leaders to have soft skills like emotional intelligence. But how do they learn these abilities?

In the weeks before she became prime minister, Theresa May gave a searingly honest interview to the Daily Mail. But the national newspaper wasn’t interested in her policies so much as her marital status and the reasons she and her husband don’t have children.

This is symptomatic of the increasing scrutiny on public figures and their personal lives – a trend that is filtering down to leaders in all walks of life, including business, claims research director at Corporate Research Forum (CRF) Gillian Pillans. “The advent of social media, as well as the visibility people have of their political leaders, means there’s much more openness expected of leaders more generally,” she says.

Open communication, as well as integrity and authenticity rank highly on the list of qualities employees require from leaders. “In uncertain times it’s helpful for leaders to communicate a very clear purpose so that others still have a compelling reason to want to come to work and contribute to the organisation’s success.

Clear values, consistently expressed and role modelled, also help to engage others,” says Simon Hayward, chief executive of leadership development consultancy Cirrus.

But can such qualities (often described as ‘soft skills’) be taught? With the external climate making such skills all the more important, the debate on whether qualities such as the ability to motivate people, authenticity, and being good at public speaking are innate or can be learned is hotting up.

There are certainly those who would assert that the most important skills in today’s business world are unfortunately the most difficult to teach. “Qualities such as accountability, collaboration, decisiveness, innovation, creativity, cultural awareness, a global mindset, responsible management, emotional and moral intelligence, empathy and mindfulness are hard to teach – but these are the qualities employers need and want in a fast-changing complex environment,” says Aarti Bhasin, employer relations manager at the Association of MBAs.

She adds that securing these qualities at the recruitment stage is often the best bet: “There is an increasing need for leaders to be flexible and adaptable, so the challenge is for employers to hire individuals with these attributes as much as it is for business schools to develop the leaders of tomorrow.”

Keiron Sparrowhawk, founder and chief executive of technology startup MyCognition, singles out the ability to listen well as one of the most important leadership skills, but also the hardest to teach. “Too many leaders like the sound of their own voice – I certainly fall into that trap sometimes,” he says. “A good leader should spend more time listening than anything else – to their staff and their customers.”

But Sparrowhawk is by no means of the conviction that this skill can’t be improved over time. He has benefited greatly in this area, he says, from leadership training in his previous roles in big pharma, the experience gained by running his own business employing 50 people globally, as well as undertaking an MBA later in his career at the University of Westminster.

The operative words here, perhaps, are ‘over time’. Vicky Williams, director of people, HR and development at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), is certainly of the opinion that dedicating concerted, regular effort to honing soft skills can deliver results. “Most things can be taught, other than passion – people are born either being passionate or they’re not. That’s an innate skill,” she says. “But if you take teamwork as a leadership competency, while somebody cannot go from completely unskilled to being A-starred, their leadership journey equips them to be better than when they started out.”

Regarding the best ways to develop leadership muscle, Keith Robson, an interim HRD who most recently worked as Aviva’s group talent director, believes that “there’s no stage like the real one”. “There is no substitute for standing up and doing what you do in front of people, and then it’s all about the quality of the feedback so leaders understand what went well and what didn’t,” he says.

The importance of teaching soft leadership skills must not be neglected for more trendy (often technology-related) topics, feels Bhasin. “Sometimes I can’t help but feel that development programmes are focused on

new and emerging trends and buzzwords – such as ‘scrum’, technological advancements, change management, crowdfunding or ‘gig economy’. It’s important to keep up with trends in the marketplace, but this could be to the detriment of honing the soft skills that need to be nurtured in leaders, in order for them and their businesses to continuously adapt to changes and disruptions.”

For Bhasin, developing an open communication style, integrity and authenticity is often about simply encouraging a leader to bring a more personal touch to their role overall. “The age of the ‘stiff upper lip’ has passed and I believe workplace cultures need to evolve; to allow emotional intelligence to mature in our businesses,” she says.

Teaching authenticity is a contradictory and potentially futile, even ill-advised, road to go down, agrees Guy Pink, executive director of HR at drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction.

“We’re operating in incredibly uncertain times and people are looking to leaders to be able to provide clarity and direction. Staff see through it very quickly if you’re talking in jargon or trying to pull the wool over their eyes,” he points out.

The bottom line for many though is that, with the stakes so high for getting this brand of leadership right, organisations cannot afford to just throw their hands up and say something is ‘simply unteachable’.

Leadership soft skills, ultimately, are critical to business success, reiterates Hayward. “Authenticity and values are no longer just nice things to have. They can boost business performance,” he says. “In recent years we have witnessed a breakdown in trust in organisations following many high-profile cases of miss-selling, misreporting and corruption.

“In some cases the financial consequences can run into billions of pounds in damages and stock market value write-downs. Corporate amorality is a very costly business.”