Coaching Leadership: How to help the hard-skills enthusiast develop a softer side


by: Marissa Afton

It is widely understood that leaders succeed by demonstrating know-how in a variety of aptitudes that are necessary (and usually required) for their industry and job. Historically, those specialized proficiencies focused on “hard skills”: specific, quantifiable competencies which served leaders well in achieving financial targets and other business outcomes—assuming the desired results didn’t include motivating change, generating trust, or inspiring buy-in. However, today’s leaders may find themselves losing their edge in delivering sustainable results if they choose not to complement their technical capabilities with some soft skill expertise.

“Soft skills” (or what some used to term, “street smarts”) can be any number of competencies that support positive interpersonal dynamics. Empathy, active listening, communication, and team building are a few which may come to mind. Traditionally, these are not qualities that are taught in standard academic settings, however more and more businesses, researchers, and schools recognize the value of adding these tools to the leadership toolbox. Even stalwart institutions like Harvard are now encouraging young applicants to demonstrate qualities such as “authentic intellectual engagement” and a “concern for others” as requisites for candidacy and admission¹. It is in these less quantifiable measurements where coaches can add value and be beneficial in helping leaders identify and develop the skills necessary for success.

In many ways, coaching leadership soft-skills can be more challenging and difficult than coaching tangible concerns like goal setting, time management, or accountability. Oftentimes, leaders have blind spots about their soft-skills aptitude and may only seek coaching after unexpected feedback or anonymous results from a 360-assessment. But once the leader has concrete awareness of the need to develop the softer side of themselves, it is nearly imperative to move forward in making change.

Research on leadership character traits finds that those senior leaders who score highly on certain soft skill capabilities such as integrity, compassion, and forgiveness, realize higher financial gains for the company. They also engender a sense of confidence in team members across multiple factors such as vision, strategy, and accountability²; hard bottom-line factors that no leader can ignore.

In coaching certain executive leaders and middle managers, I have often found an initial natural resistance to the idea of developing such character traits. The perception may exist that a strong leader shouldn’t need soft skills in order to get things done. Having such attributes may even be construed as a waste of time or counterproductive. Sadly, a biased viewpoint persists that erroneously equates traits like empathy to weakness; leaders who hold this belief may fear damaged credibility or the loss of their ability to manage others effectively. The truth is, this misperception can backlash and give leaders the exact opposite results when left unchecked.

Thankfully, through coaching, leaders can begin to see the value of developing a deeper awareness of their interpersonal behaviors and try out new skills in a neutral, judgment-free setting. If the coach is able to encourage self-reflection and even vulnerability in the leader, real insights and shifts begin to occur. Most leaders don’t have a safe environment in their day-to-day to test out new skills without risking people’s opinion of them. Again, here is where the coach can be invaluable, becoming the trustworthy agent to guide them through the process of testing out these new communication strategies, listening skills, and behaviors.

Finally, real breakthroughs can come when the leader learns to use their new skillset on themselves. Many find that we are our own harshest critic, our negative self-talk is louder than any opponent. As true as this is for the average person, it can be compounded for the leader. Having the pressure of running a team is a lot to bear and many leaders don’t recognize how much they themselves need the same forgiveness, compassion, and understanding that they seek to develop for their professional (and personal) interactions. Experiencing this empathy towards themselves can be a true signal of integrity for the people they lead and live with. It then becomes easier for team members to trust, open up, and ultimately follow the leader; as a result, everyone benefits.


Marissa Afton
is a senior consultant and trainer with Potential Project (, a global provider of organizational effectiveness programs based on mindfulness. A sought-after executive coach, Marissa has worked extensively with leaders of Fortune 500 companies across the globe, helping them apply social intelligence and other transformational leadership skills to become more impactful with their teams and subordinates. Marissa is founding member with IAC.

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