January 26, 2019

My Big Beef With The Term “Soft Skills”

LinkedIn released its annual list of top skills that are in demand by executives.

The company writes:

These are the skills your boss and your boss’s boss find most valuable, but have a hard time finding – and the skills that’ll most help you better serve your clients and customers.

The 2019 skills are listed in a hierarchical order of importance. Of note, LinkedIn catalogues two separate lists. One is denoted by “hard skills” while the other illustrates “soft skills” in demand. The latter came out as follows:

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Time Management

While I have no issue with the list, per se, there is one point to make.

Soft skills.

Why does LinkedIn—and other organizations in the communication, PR and marketing space—continue to refer to them as soft skills?

How ridiculous is it to suggest these critically important attributes as being “soft.” That’s like saying my favourite meal is food. Or perhaps my preferred type of music is one with instruments.

“Hey, Danica Patrick. What’s your favoured type of racing car?” She responds, “One with wheels.”

“Dan, what is your much-loved type of hat?”

“One that covers my head.”

LinkedIn goes a step further by using the following definition for soft skills:

Soft skills are defined as less tangible and harder to quantify, such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.

Less tangible?

The entire leadership development industry is estimated to be worth greater than $50 billion. How can soft skills be worth $50 billion? That does not seem so soft. That certainly looks quite tangible.

Soft skills are not soft; they are professional. We might even suggest that professional skills be considered leadership skills.

Each of us is a leader, be it a leader of self, leader of teams, leader of projects, or leader of business units and organizations.

Leadership is not a soft skill. It’s a practice, an art, an entire discipline. Leadership encompasses all facets of leading people, teams, projects, initiatives, organizations, and so on. It cannot be whittled down to a soft skill. LinkedIn is doing a disservice to those on the hunt for development options, let alone those leaders consuming the findings and trying to make sense of a “soft skill.”

Soft skills is far too derogatory a term—and too archaic to categorize as a skill category—for it to be on LinkedIn’s list.

Since when did leadership become soft? It’s hard. (But don’t get me started on whether it should be considered a soft or hard skill. It’s neither.)

Leadership is the practice of a multitude of professional skills, often employed simultaneously to achieve an outcome. That could be the development of people, the execution of a task, the motivation of a team, or the creation of a product or service.

Leadership is the pursuit of revenue and profit, ideally balanced by a purpose-driven mindset. It is about building relationships inside and outside the organization while sustaining a culture that is open, collaborative and engaged.

Leadership is holding the capability to influence, inspire, and course-correct. It is managing a budget, forecasting, and selling. Leadership is about being a mentor, a coach and a trusted advisor.

Within leadership, multiple different skills ought to be employed by a leader. Embedded inside the concept of leadership are attributes and behaviours that in totality make up the responsibilities of a leader.

Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management—skills from the LinkedIn “soft skills” list—are all excellent examples of leadership skills. Whether you are a leader of self, teams, projects and/or the organization, if you do not possess these skills in this day and age, you will ultimately fail as a leader.

But they are not “soft skills.” There is nothing soft about creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management.

In the 2020 LinkedIn “Skills Companies Need Most List,” I encourage the company to begin using the term “professional skills” or preferably “leadership skills” to designate what they now refer to as “soft skills.”

Let’s raise the perception and understanding of what it means to be a leader, and to develop one’s professional skills. There’s nothing soft about that.

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