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Learning The Softer Side Of Leadership

Leaders' primary objective is to empower others to make decisions and take actions that are aligned with the organization’s vision, purpose, and strategy. These nuances are the softer side of leadership, beyond the technical skills that you have already mastered.

Leadership is the "eighth wonder of the world." It is better seen and felt than defined and said. It’s easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize.  

The world’s most impactful leaders in all arenas, from business to government, understand the paradox that although leadership starts with the leader, it’s never about the leader. This wisdom should be emulated and applied by everyone who aspires to leadership.

As the leader, you need to be hands on, but your primary objective is to empower others to make decisions and take actions that are aligned with the organization’s vision, purpose, and strategy. You’re "all in" in terms of commitment, but the spotlight is always on the results of the team. It’s not about you.

These nuances are the softer side of leadership, beyond the technical skills that you have already mastered on your way to becoming a leader. These are the truths that can make or break your leadership—and there’s nothing simple about them. It takes real effort to empower people or reward a team continuously with praise and acknowledgement. It’s a commitment on the part of a leader to do more listening than speaking, so that others feel heard and valuable feedback is collected. Leaders must always be learning.

When I became a CEO, I had developed the ability to strategize, implement, and execute. Once I was in the job, however, I had new lessons to learn: For one, that as the CEO I was no longer just myself. When I spoke, it wasn’t just for me. People perceived me differently because of the position and the institution I represented.

I noticed this first when people began to read my mood like tea leaves. If I was worried, distracted, or having a "gray day," they suddenly began to wonder if they should be concerned. I quickly understood that I needed to convey my messages not only with what I said, but also how I said it. I did away with the Power Points and focused more attention on my tone. This became imperative during the economic downturn of 2008-09, when I had to show by my words, actions, and attitude that not only did we have a plan (and it proved to be a good one), but that I had full faith in its success (which I did). When you’re the leader people will always look to you for assurance that "we’re really going to get there."

As you define and distinguish your leadership, here are some tips and insights for mastering the all-important softer side.

Leaders are the mirrors for the entire organization.  If the leader is down, the organization will follow. If leaders reflect optimism and confidence, the organization will rise. Good leaders have the ability after every conversation to make people feel better, more capable, and more willing to stretch than they did before the conversation occurred.  

Leadership is taking charge to help others execute.  A leader does not tell people what to think or do, but rather guides them in what to think about. Taking charge means setting the strategy and agenda—and also making sure that the length and pace of the runway is right for the organization to actualize that agenda. Remember, it’s others who will need to execute against that plan. If you try to charge up the mountain without the buy-in of your followers, you’ll soon find yourself trekking alone. 

Leadership is awareness of what you’re not hearing.  It’s a fact of life as a leader: People won’t tell you want you really need to know, only what they think you want to hear. To keep from being isolated, you need to be out there and engaged. Stay close to your customers and employees. Ask questions with an inquiring mind (not to conduct an "inquisition"). Look to reopen eyes to situations and possibilities, staring with yours.

Leadership should be humbling.  Humility is the grace that constantly whispers, "It’s not about you." Humility means that you know who you are, where you’ve been, and what you have accomplished. With that knowledge, you can get out of your own way and focus on others with confidence that you can lead, inspire, and guide them.  

Leadership has an endpoint—organizations should not.  Leaders must recognize the endpoint of their leadership is not the endpoint for the organization. Just as leaders took over from someone else, so others will follow them as successors. Your job as a leader is to be the source of energy and change to grow the organization during your time and to act as a steward. Then you will turn it over to another in better shape than when you inherited it.

Leadership is all about how you make other people feel.  Your achievement as a leader is measured in the success of others. To motivate and inspire, you must shift from "what must be done" to "why we’re doing this." You can’t just put up the targets and tell people to take aim in order to reap a short-term reward. Leadership conveys and embodies the enduring purpose and deeper reasons for an organization’s existence.

As a leader, you plan, strategize, and set priorities. Your primary responsibilities, however, are always to inspire, motivate, and empower others. As a leader, you rise above "me" to embrace "we." 

—Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leader in talent development. He is also the author of The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership (McGraw-Hill, March 2012) and the New York Times bestseller No Fear of Failure (Jossey-Bass 2011).

[Image: Flickr user chiptape]

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  • John Balla

     Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I noticed that it's written from the perspective of the top-down view of leadership. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on peer leadership or non-positional leadership since even many CEOs have peers in the form of partner organizations' CEOs, and they always have to "manage up" to their board or to investors.

    By "non-positional leadership," I am referrring to people in the organization that exercise leadership without having the title on the org chart. Most organizations have leaders that emerge from "among the rank and file," and even as they rise up in the organization they have peers at each level that they need to interact with effectively to gain support, or to de-fuse detractors among their peers. So, it would be very interesting to get your thoughts on each one of the sections of your post, but expressed in terms of non-positional leadership.

  • Olivier Compagne

    Great article, it's good to hear this "wisdom" from a first-hand perspective. I'd like to suggest a possible alternative approach to the leadership problem. I also think that empowering leaders are the best possible leaders in conventional organizational structures. These structures funnel most of the decisions to and from the leader (i.e., "if you're not sure, ask the boss"), so we'd better have really good - and wise - ones.But there is a fundamental contradiction in the "empowering leader" position. To quote a blog post: "An environment where leaders have to empower others is fundamentally a disempowering environment – one which uses heroic top-down leadership to get beyond heroic top-down leadership, thus fundamentally relying on the very thing it seeks to transcend." ( )Another way of posing the problem is: how can we get strong leadership without having to rely on heroic leaders?

  • billie kell

    A wonderful and honest viewpoint.  Our vulnerabilities are what make us human.  Perhaps CEO should stand for Caring Executive Officer.  It's surprising how innovative and effective your peers will be if you always send out the message that you give a damn about more than the company's achievements.  You value them and show it.  You only have too see those who have mastered the softer side in balance with the hard side to see the benefits of a more rounded approach.  Good to hear someone else who has a similar viewpoint.  Strange I keep getting asked 'What would a children's nurse know about leadership?"

  • Dianne Crampton

    When leaders foster trust in an organization the psychological needs everyone have are able to surface in organizations. Trust building is not an intellectual exercise. It is an emotional one - just as the work enviornment or business culture is. I networked this article just about everywhere, I think it is that good.

  • Christina Haxton

    I agree with the comments below ... 3 Keys to Leadership success today and going forward.  Recognize you are operating in a Trust Economy.  People trust people, not titles or egos.  Sustainable leaders demonstrate the ability to show vulnerability (i.e., their emotions) without fear of being "weak." Successful, emotionally and socially intelligent leaders will also know that emotions are contagious - this does not require a degree in neuroscience, but an appreciation and understanding of why and how people react and respond to emotions, not always logical thinking.  

    I appreciate your post and look forward to more:  to read more about the "how to's" of soft skills of leadership on the Sustainable Leader's News & Articles site here:


  • Marian Thier

    As long as anyone in a leadership position says there are hard/strategic skills and soft skills, the first will be considered more important than the latter. I've been an executive coach for over two decades and my dedicated clients work equally diligently on all fronts because they have to operate as complete leaders.

    Allow yourself to respond honestly to these terms: hard body/soft body, hard problem solved/soft problem solved, hard heart/soft heart, hard work/soft add more.  

  • Lester Crafton

    In short:

    Leadership is an awareness of why you're not hearing what you're not hearing.  And why you're not hearing it is because of something that you are doing, whether or not you are aware of it--the exact thing your people will tell you if you ask and they understand that you actually want to know the answer so that you can grow as a leader and help them grow as people (which is perfectly in line with your point about listening without an agenda). 

    The hardest and scariest topic about which to receive feedback is the topic of yourself and how you can do better from the people you lead.  Leaders do things that are hard and scary and thus inspire--not "empower"--others to do the same.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Lester Crafton

    "It’s a fact of life as a leader: People won’t tell you want you really need to know, only what they think you want to hear."


    Speak for yourself about the "facts", sir.  But let's assume that it is true for a second.  Why would your people "think you want to hear" anything other than what they feel is holding them back?

    Did you possibly yell at them last time?  Did you blame them? Is their job on the line? Do you see it as a "fact" that "people are who they are"?  Probably, because you just defined a "fact" of leadership based on your limited ability and assumed the same for others.  

    If you are actually a leader, you will read the previous comment and consider it--because this is the stuff your people, I assume, don't tell you.  This is what leads to your next point:

    Leaders are humble.

    Let your people bust your balls and your organization will grow.

  • Doug Brockway

    Brilliant points Gary. Leadership IS about learning how to enlist the best thinking and efforts of your people. My experience though shows that this often goes up against the drive for short term quarterly profit that puts numbers before people. It is a model that often, and forceably, places the leaders focus squarely on producing numbers quickly. In the process, efforts to 'engage' employees take on more of a command and control, traditional leadership style. I'd be interested on your thoughts on how leaders within this dominant economic context can create an environment where both people and profits flourish.