18 Essential Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in Business & Leadership Roles

For many people in leadership roles, certain business soft skills — often referred to as interpersonal skills — can be among the hardest to master. Hopefully, taking a moment to read about these 18 valuable leadership soft skills will inspire some insights into which ones might be most helpful to you, as well as ideas on how to improve soft skills that you already possess.

1. Communication

We’re communicating this one first because it connects directly to so many other essential business soft skills. In addition to written and verbal communication, it encompasses nonverbal communication (your ability to effectively use, and read, body language in your interactions with others). It touches on presentation and public speaking skills, as well as your ability to offer clear guidance, to craft meaningful messaging and to leverage the power of persuasion. Crucially, true mastery of communication skills involves using your ears, as well as your mouth and your pen or keyboard.

2. Active Listening

For many of us, part of the conversation process often involves an inner voice that’s focused on formulating the next words out of your mouth. Active listening involves putting that voice on “mute” to listen in a more engaged and attentive way to the people you’re communicating with. And the benefits can be profound. For one, listening more closely enables you to draw out potentially important details that might not otherwise be shared, thus improving the quality of your information and your understanding of the matter at hand.

3. Conflict Management

Conflict is not only inevitable, it can also present opportunities to transform negative energy into positive opportunities for learning, growth and, ultimately, more effective operations. Conflict management teachings assert that, rather than operate in a culture of avoidance and accommodation, it is better to address conflict head-on — with the goal being resolution borne out of compromise and collaboration. You won’t be surprised to learn that one of the most important soft skills in the conflict management toolbox is active listening.

4. Curiosity

Curious about why “curiosity” is often mentioned in ads for some of the best jobs? Well, employment website Payscale says, “Intellectual curiosity is key for career success.” They say curiosity propels growth, makes work more fun and even separates us from the robots. Noted genius Albert Einstein is among those who have touted the power of curiosity to change the world, with his famous quote, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

5. Passion for Leadership

OK, this one is arguably among the softer soft skills, but some also regard it as one of the most powerful. Leadership development firm Ariel Group emphasizes the business value of communicating with purpose and passion in its soft skills training, asserting that doing so inspires colleagues and business connections alike, and motivates them to take desired actions.

6. Creativity

“Thinking outside the box,” is a cliché so well-worn that it ought to be avoided. However, the sentiment it expresses remains as important as ever. Sometimes, it means embracing a daring idea instead of the safe, conventional path. Other times, it means tapping your own imagination and engaging those around you to come up with an inspiring idea or unexpected solution to a specific challenge. (Example: What are the “ABCs of creativity”? Let’s say: Abstract analysis, Brainstorming and Cognitive flexibility.)

7. Feedback

Feedback is a two-way street. First, of course, it is essential for good leaders to offer useful, relevant, constructive feedback about the performance of those whose work you depend on; however, remember that respect and specificity are key. Second, be sure not to miss opportunities to enrich your view of the “big picture” and improve your own performance by soliciting the feedback of those around you.

8. Taking Responsibility

Invariably, things will not go as planned for a variety of possible reasons. Since a leader ultimately bears significant responsibility for the successes and failures of his or her team, there will be occasions when the best way forward — rather than scapegoating and handing out blame — may be to just say, “This one’s on me.”

9. Flexibility

“What!? What do you mean Plan A isn’t working? That’s impossible.” Nope. As a matter of fact, an entire universe of unforeseen circumstances can disrupt the proverbial “best laid plans.” That’s why effective leaders are skilled at shifting gears on the fly, transitioning to Plan B, C or even the entire alphabet when the situation demands it.

10. Trustworthiness

Let’s shake on it. Trust is obviously essential in the business world, whether you’re looking to win the confidence of potential clients or customers, or motivate and inspire team members and colleagues. The best way to establish and earn trust is simply to be open, honest and as transparent as possible in all of your interactions.

11. Delegation

The ability to effectively delegate — tasks, responsibilities, authority — is about more than just handing things off because even the most effective business leader cannot do it all. It is also about empowering those around you — recognizing talent, nurturing professional growth and connecting colleagues with opportunities to excel in the workplace and achieve shared goals. Pro tip: It can also be an effective time-management technique.

12. Time Management

Time is money! — as the saying goes. There are only so many hours in the day, goes another cliché. In today’s fast-paced business world, the need to manage your priorities while wisely balancing your time is … just as important as it has always been. A few time-honored time-management tips include doing the following things wisely:

  • Setting achievable goals
  • Organizing your day, prioritizing your tasks
  • Establishing and sticking to deadlines
  • Not letting your inbox hamper your output
  • Planning the work and working the plan.

13. Stress Management

Statistics show that workplace stress is up, and that it can drive productivity down. It also impacts people’s health. That’s why WebMD.com offers 13 useful stress-management tips that span more than just the usual advice to stay positive, exercise, be sure to get enough rest and accept that there are some things that you cannot control.

14. Problem Solving

You’re probably familiar with the expression, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” What this really means is, “If you’re going to complain about a problem, first take a little time to come up with some possible solutions.” It’s worth the extra effort, because problem solving skills — the ability to recognize problems, identify possible solutions, implement them and then follow up to make sure they’re successful — are often rewarded when it comes to career advancement.

15. Emotional Intelligence

You’re book smart, business smart, ideally a little street smart, too. But how’s your emotional intelligence? (Common follow-up question: What exactly is emotional intelligence?) Sometimes called your EQ, it refers to our ability to be aware, control and express our emotions, and also to understand and influence the emotions of others. Some intelligent folks at PsychCentral.com believe that your EQ is often more important than your IQ.

16. Empathy

Closely connected to emotional intelligence, empathy is sometimes described in terms of “putting yourselves in someone else’s shoes” and “leading from the heart.” Leading with empathy not only facilitates cooperation, it enhances your own ability to innovate and influence both colleagues and customers by caring enough to truly understand their perspectives, challenges and motivations.

17. Positivity

“Accentuate the positive,” is a soft skill whose praises have been sung by everybody from Bing Crosby and Paul McCartney to Aretha Franklin to Ella Fitzgerald. We all know that challenges and frustrations are a regular part of doing business. Finding it within yourself to stay upbeat and positive in the face of stumbling blocks and annoyances not only makes your work go more smoothly, it sets a great example for all of those around you.

18. Humor

Though it obviously must be used with careful consideration and only in appropriate situations, humor has the capacity to ease tension, command attention, foster rapport and much more. It can also be used to make just about any topic more enjoyable to read about.  

So, how can you build your leadership skills — specifically some of the valuable soft skills we’ve talked about here? We’ve put a lot of thought into this and share some of our best ideas for soft skills training in a professional development certificate program — called the Essential Leadership Skills Series — that we offer through the University of San Diego.