This is certainly not a new rant, not even for me, and certainly not for leadership consultants in general.  I’ve been writing about the misconceptions and unintended consequences of the term “soft skills” for years, especially when it comes to the dismissive notion that soft skills means being nice.  The problem is that no one ever comes up with a good substitute, and today is no exception.  I still haven’t found anything that might stick.  Interpersonal skills is better but it doesn’t cover everything.  Non-technical skills is better but it’s so vague.

But I did find a new angle from which to make the case for the importance of soft skills.  Geoff Colvin, in a fantastic article in Fortune Magazine called “Humans are underrated,” says that as machines increasingly replace humans in a variety of jobs, the key question is not what computers can’t do—because every time we think we’ve found something, we’re quickly proved wrong—but what we won’t want computers to do.  Some examples:

  • Making decisions that someone needs to be accountable for.   Judges, generals, politicians, CEOs and parole officers will still need to be humans.
  • Solving problems that are more effectively solved by groups than by individuals
  • Jobs that we have a deep, interpersonal need to have done by a human.  For example, we want to hear our diagnosis from a human doctor, not a robot.  We want to negotiate important agreements with a human, whose eyes we can look into.

What do these functions have in common?  Those very things we dismissively call soft skills, and Colvin has plenty of current research to back this up:

Ask employers which skills they’ll need most in the next five to 10 years, as the Oxford Economics research firm did, and the answers that come back do not include business acumen, analysis, or P&L management—left-brain thinking skills that computers handle well. Instead, employers’ top priorities include relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity, and ability to manage diverse employees—right-brain skills of social interaction.”

Employment statistics tell us transaction-type jobs are decreasing and jobs requiring human interaction have increased.  Companies that emphasize and hire for soft skills perform better than their competitors.  A perfect example can be found in Southwest Airlines, which thrives in a very tough industry by hiring people for personality, especially empathy and a sense of humor.  As Colvin puts it, “the fundamental nature of value [has shifted] from what you know to what you’re like.”

This shift applies to our leadership paradigm also, even in rigid environments like the military.  Stanley McChrystal’s new book, Team of Teams, is about how he learned that terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq could only be fought by flattened hierarchies in which decisions could be made quickly by those on the ground, and information was shared across agencies and military branches that formerly operated as silos.  Traditional command-and-control structures simply couldn’t adapt and make decisions quickly enough.  What do military leaders need in order to make such a dramatic cultural shift?  Soft skills–especially listening, questioning and relationship-building skills.

When a guy like General McChrystal makes a convincing case for the importance of soft skills in fighting terrorism, I think it becomes pretty obvious that “soft” has nothing to do with it.  But I’m still waiting for someone to come up with a better term.

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