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10 smart — not soft — skills for leaders

Meredith Somers for MIT Management Sloan School

A new book frames qualities like humility, adaptability, and vulnerability as smart — not soft — skills to help leaders manage the most complex of variables: people.
Since the 1970s when the U.S. Army actively began training soldiers in “important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines,” organizations have cultivated soft skills among their leadership and teams.

But after 50 years of categorizing qualities like problem solver, strong communicator, and good listener as “soft,” it’s time for a change, according to MIT Sloan international faculty fellow Loredana Padurean.

“Pitching and presenting projects is not a tender act. Handling and delivering critical feedback is not mild, and dealing with office politics is certainly not for the weak. So why do we still refer to them as soft?” writes Padurean in her new book “The Job Is Easy, The People Are Not!

Padurean is the associate dean and faculty director for action learning at the Asia School of Business, an education partner with MIT Sloan. She also co-teaches an MIT Sloan Executive Education course on strategic innovation for leaders and entrepreneurs.

In her book, Padurean outlines 10 “smart” skills to help managers navigate what she says is the one variable that always creates complexity: people.

“People are complicated and self-centric; they think they are always right, they have egos and insecurities, they struggle to manage their own emotions, they require constant validation (which is draining and annoying), and so much more,” writes Padurean, who drew from interviews with MIT Sloan and Asia School of Business leaders to understand the 10 skills.

Here are some observations on each of those qualities, from experts who are teaching and practicing them.

Adaptability. “You have to build self-awareness around your comfort zones. Starting to say yes more than saying no can be a great starting point.” — Emily Preiss, senior director of admissions and career transformation at Asia School of Business

Cognitive readiness. “Organizational dynamics may not evolve minute by minute like in a basketball or a football game, but there are always dynamics going on, and if the ‘players’ are ready, then whenever the ball comes your way, you are ready to play.” — MIT Sloan professor Charles Fine

Emotional maturity. “If you’re not attuned to the environment in which you’re working, you may fall into this trap that I think some CEOs get into, which is that they’re expected to have the answers all the time, rather than set the circumstances in the company so that the answers are explored.” — MIT Sloan professor Roberto Fernandez

Followership. “Followership is not the opposite of leadership, but a drive to pursue the shared mission and values of an organization, a group, or a project.” — Hadija Mohd, senior lecturer at Asia School of Business

Humility. “You cannot do things just by yourself. You need the cooperation of others because skills and knowledge are dispersed. I have a bit of knowledge and skills, you have a bit of knowledge and skills. We need to work together and have the humility to acknowledge that.” — Renato Lima-de-Oliveira, assistant professor of business and society at Asia School of Business

Listening. “Oftentimes, people think listening is a passive skill. But in reality, listening is an active skill because it requires full attention. This requires you to be present in the moment.” — Jin Sohn, ’22, MBA, Asia School of Business

Managing up. “You want to create an environment where people can voice their perspective, give hard feedback, or disagree with you about critical decisions. It’s about staying centered and focused on our shared goal.” — Sean Ferguson, former senior associate dean at Asia School of Business

Multiple perspectives. “It’s understanding and practicing and reflecting and celebrating. It’s saying, ‘Hey, that went well ... but what would I do differently next time?’” — Sangeeta Matu, deputy director of action learning at Asia School of Business

Productive inclusion. “Being inclusive, welcoming all sorts of unique talents — even those from marginalized communities — can help your business grow and be more unique, diverse, and special.” — Yi-Ren Wang, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Asia School of Business

Validation. “Validation is more than just feedback for somebody’s work. It’s about their contribution and importance to the organization, to a project, an initiative, or even a relationship. It’s both a motivating and a training tool that helps us understand what we do well.” — MIT Sloan international faculty fellow Loredana Padurean

Excerpted from the book "The Job Is Easy, The People Are Not! 10 Smart Skills To Become Better People" by Loredana Padurean. Copyright © 2022 by Loredana Padurean. Published by START Disrupt (M) Sdn Bhd. All Rights Reserved.

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