Five soft skills every leader needs to develop

It’s uncommon to learn soft skills in school so when we enter the workplace, we learn by trial and error. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good boss or mentor who shows you the ropes and gives you opportunities to hone your soft skills. And, as anyone with a nightmare boss story can tell you, some people never learn them. Today, I want to talk to you about the five soft skills that are essential for every leader and future leader to develop: communication, setting boundaries, leadership presence, trust and understanding your values.

What are soft skills?

According to the dictionary, soft skills are “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

I don’t entirely agree with the dictionary; soft skills are desirable for most forms of employment—no matter what hard skills someone has—and are especially critical for leaders.

Soft skills grease the wheels of personal and professional relationships. They help you navigate your environment in a way that’s authentic for you.

For women, the good news is we’re generally good at soft skills! We get top marks for empathy, compassion and team building. Butmany women (and men) struggle with the five soft skills I’ll talk about here.

If you’re a woman on the leadership track—especially if you work in a male-dominated industry—you’ll have a far more satisfying professional life if you learn to master these five soft skills.

Essential soft skills for leaders: Communication

Communication is broken down into three components: written, verbal andnon-verbal communications. Listening is part of all three communication components.

We are taught written communication in English class but what works for an academic essay is the opposite of what works for business communications. In academia, nobody blinks at 40-word sentences. In the corporate world, eyes glaze over when we write or speak in long, convoluted sentences.

We’re not taught to express ourselves in a way that gets our point across and this is what we need to learn. Effective communication is clear and succinct; people should know what your point is and what they need to do with that information.

This is a skill you can develop for your written and verbal communications. And if you’re already clear and concise in one form of communication, you’ll have an easier time transferring this skill to the other modality.

Non-verbal communication is about what your body language tells other people. Think of your last presentation. Did your body language match or support what you said? Or did it sabotage your words? This is important because when your body language doesn’t match your words, you don’t show up authentically—and this makes it harder for people to trust you.

Essential soft skills for leaders: Setting boundaries

Boundaries are so important! Depending on your nature, your boundaries could be extreme; for example, you could always say yes or always say no. But it’s important to have boundaries that serve you and can be flexible—when required—rather than staying at the extreme edges.

Setting boundaries relies on your communication skills; how do you articulate your boundaries to the people around you? This can be especially uncomfortable for women because we often feel guilty when we say no.

Setting boundaries is about:

  • How to say yes to more of what we want.
  • How to say no to what we don’t want—and get comfortable with it.

Here are two boundary-setting scripts you can practice with:

  • For something you don’t want to do now – Say, “I’m really sorry but now’s not a good time for me to assist you with that. How important is it?”
  • For something you don’t want to do ever – Say, “That’s really not in my wheelhouse and I don’t think I’d be the best person to support you with that.” You can then recommend someone else who might be better suited for the activity. By doing this, you honour yourself and let the other person down gently.

It’s important to realize this: you’re not obligated to do something and if it’s not aligned with your values, you absolutely should not do it.

Essential soft skills for leaders: Leadership presence

Leadership presence is a type of non-verbal communication. Some people have it naturally and others must work to attain it. This soft skill is about understanding the presence you want to have and why it’s important for you to show up a certain way. Plus, it’s recognizing why you might not be showing up the way you’d like to. It’s not about ego or showing up a certain way to match others. It’s about showing up in a way that’s authentic to you and makes it easy for other people to see and experience your leadership qualities.

One way I help clients develop their leadership presence is through the Energy Leadership Index (ELI) assessment. (The ELI is third on the Forbes list of assessments every executive should take and is included in the WIL Empowered VIP Membership.) I love this assessment because it helps you to see how you actually show up—in good times and when you’re stressed out. Most people never take the time to think about how they show up in the world; instead they run on autopilot. Having an under-developed leadership presenceaffects the roles you’ll have an opportunity to take on throughout your career.

The takeaway is this: how you show up determines whether you’re tagged as an up-and-coming leader at work.

Essential soft skills for leaders: Trust

A big part of cultivating trust comes through how we communicate. To build trust, it’s important to be transparent and understand your intentions versus the impact of your actions.

Cultivating trust doesn’t mean you’ll like or trust everybody. However, when you’re self-aware and you can see how you’re developing conversations, how you’re interacting with others and how they’re receiving you,it helps you develop a culture of trust. It also helps you eliminate people you don’t trust(and whoshouldn’t be part of your circle).

It’s easy to lose someone’s trust which is why it’s so important to have communication skillsthat support a culture of trust rather than inadvertently sabotaging it.

Essential soft skills for leaders: Understanding your values as a leader

Like the others, this soft skill requires self-awareness. It’s important to know what your values are and whether they’re aligned to the values of the company you’re working with. This starts by spending time to really understand what’s important to you, how you want to show up and be perceived and what you want to be recognized for. Think about what you want people to come to you for and create the strategy that supports this vision.Doing this work helps you position yourself as a leader while staying true to your values.

To keep your values in mind, ask yourself, “Who am I being while I am doing?”

Remember that there’s not only one type of leader so you don’t have to fit into someone else’s mold. Instead, you get to discover the type of leader you want to be, develop your skills and become that leader.

These five soft skills are not the only skills leaders and future leaders need to master but they’re an excellent start! If you want to develop these soft skills in a supportive community environment over the next 12 months, become a member of the WIL Empowered program today!  


Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: coaching, networking, peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

Are you curious about joining the Women in Leadership Empowered program? Would you like to get an idea of how our program works? We’ve put together a mini course to get you started on your roadmap to career success.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website.


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