The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

by Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN and Cathy Converse

Business and professional literature is replete with discussions of skills and competencies necessary to be a good leader. The discussion frequently includes both “hard” and “soft” skills and the relative importance of each. Hard skills, often obtained through formal education, are particularly helpful in an environment where the rules for using these skills are constant.  Conversely, soft skills, often self-taught, may vary depending upon the environment in which they are practiced.

Historically, “hard” skills are considered to be more difficult to obtain AND more important to leadership.  Perhaps this perception is because there are many quantitative measures of achieving these types of skills and the acquisition of “soft” skills is more difficult to measure.  Perhaps it is because “hard” skills are associated with a masculine persona, whereas “soft” skills are considered more feminine.  Regardless of the reasons for these perceptions, they have resulted in an emphasis on the use of the scientific method and quantitative data as necessary for decision-making, and leaders in many scenarios are chosen for their level of competence in “hard” leadership skills.

However, there is now an increased awareness that soft skills do in fact play an important role in successful leadership. Martin and Golsby-Smith (2017) in the Harvard Business Review, discussed the limits of data-driven decision making, suggesting that most situations involve some elements you can change and some you cannot. The leader’s role is to spot the difference, which typically requires not only an evaluation of quantitative data, but also many of the soft skills necessary in any human interaction.

Those of you who have read the Collaborative Momentum Consulting blog over the last year know that we recognize that the use of the scientific process (for those of us who are nurses, the nursing process) and evidence-based actions are critical in nursing and other health professional practice. However, we also believe that competency in the soft skills is crucial for effective leadership regardless of one’s formal position or discipline. In addition, the context of a situation may alter the soft skills necessary for success. Thus, we believe that all of us benefit from an ongoing discussion of ways in which various soft skills can be integrated into our work and personal life.

To meet this need, Collaborative Momentum Consulting is adding a section of our website dedicated to Courageous Leadership. We define courageous leadership as “the heart to step up front and transform vision into reality.” Courage is required for us to “step up” to lead—often in uncomfortable or risky situations. And leadership is required to move from idea to implementation, particularly when there is opposition to the change.

In our research we have identified 10 characteristics—all soft skills–that we believe define courageous leadership. Courageous leadership places special emphasis on soft skills because they are critical when one is acting in challenging situations.  Decisiveness is required to move the vision forward.  You must be relentless in your pursuit of the truth, even when it’s inconvenient, challenges the status quo, or when there are competing ideas which come from opposing, powerful forces.  Self-awareness is also necessary—What are our biases?  Are we being true to our own values, even if there is personal or professional risk?

This might seem more difficult than the more traditional method of leadership, and it is—at first. But because a key component of courageous leadership is empowering others to do great work, it is actually less work in the long run, because all members of the team are fully engaged, operating at a higher level, and closely connected to the organization’s vision.

In our regular monthly blog, we will continue to focus on supporting nurse educators in a variety of ways as we have done over the last year.  We are also excited to share ideas about the use of a variety of soft skills that can improve our ability to be courageous leaders. Each month we will present a particular skill associated with courageous leadership and consider ways this skill might help us when a leadership opportunity presents itself.

 The hard truth is today’s work environments are complex and can be divisive as people struggle to achieve a vision with limited resources. In these times, the world needs courageous leaders who believe that the way forward requires collaborative communication, flexibility, connectivity with team members, and focus on the vision. Please join us as we start a journey of discovery towards courageous leadership.


Martin, R., and Golsby-Smith, T. (2017) Management Is Much More Than a Science. Harvard Business Review. September-October. Last accessed October, 2018.

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