Why Leaders Need People Skills

To lead effectively, you must be able to connect and communicate your agenda to others.

Compassion. Candor. Transparency. A focus on family.

Twenty years ago such attributes would've been seen as a drag on a corporate chieftain's rise to the top. Today, business leaders who possess these qualities are celebrated for them in the media by the likes of Fast Company, Business Week and Fortune.

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So what's going on? Is American business going soft? Are its corporate executives turning from hard-edged and dispassionate analytic types to warm, outgoing people persons? Not quite.

Top executives are instead returning to a most fundamental tenet of leadership: the ability to connect with others in order to build trust and effectively lead in times of great challenge and change. Call it the people-skills revolution.

Attributes Leaders Need

The annual Harris Online/Wall Street Journal poll cites MBA recruiters as valuing candidates with strong communication and people skills. However, so often we see people promoted into management who have personalities ill-suited to working with others, let alone managing or leading them. The boom in executive coaching attests to the need for cultivating leaders with strong people skills.

So what kind of people skills do CIOs and other executives need to display? Psychologist Daniel Goleman, a noted academic and author, promulgated the concept of emotional intelligence more than a decade ago. Goleman defined a leader's "emotional quotient," or EQ, as being a blend of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Leaders with an EQ knew themselves, exercised self-control, could motivate themselves, were empathetic, and had good people skills. All of these characteristics combine to round out a leader as one with assuredness, confidence and likability. So what do you need to do to develop those attributes?

Assuredness. Too little attention is paid to managers who know themselves and their abilities. But if you have ever worked with someone who is tentative and uncertain, you know the headaches this causes. People get frustrated as deadlines are missed due to "do-overs" of "do-overs."

Contrast this with a neatly humming department or business unit that knows what is required and consistently performs according to objective. Most often, the person in charge is one who values her people, knows them, and creates conditions and opportunities for them to succeed. As a manager, you develop your own assuredness by doing your work but also by empowering others to do theirs.

Confidence. You can consider confidence an outward reflection of assuredness. If you are secure in your estimation of your skills, you project a sense of capableness that makes others comfortable. Leaders must project confidence because it is what others expect. When we are led by another we want to have faith that the individual can do what he claims he can do. When that faith is backed by example and, better yet, by capable action, then confidence is compounded by leaders and followers together.

Confidence emerges from a job done well; it also springs from learning how to correct mistakes in addition to teaching others to do the same. Of course, an overestimation of one's abilities can also lead to overconfidence, hubris and sometimes failure, if not corrected by others.

Likability. We want to like the people for whom we work. Is it an absolutely necessary? Of course not, but in a cutthroat business environment, where an edge here or an edge there is all the difference between a leader, a contender and an also-ran, people make the key difference.

If a leader is likable and pulls workers toward him because they know he has their best interests at heart, this can create a competitive edge for an organization. Likability is rooted in personality, but managers can cultivate this by communicating regularly, demonstrating concern for others and being courteous and professional.

What Lies Beneath Matters, Too

These qualities are outward reflections of a good leader. However, a leader must deliver on what he or she projects. For example, Fortune's 2006 cover story on next-generation leaders described David Calhoun, then vice chairman at General Electric, as a terrific motivational speaker as well as "comfortable in his own skin." He also had amassed a strong track record of results, including running a diverse group of businesses with both long and short business cycles. Today Calhoun is CEO of The Nielsen Co. The article also described Ursula Burns at Xerox as a go-to leader for CEO Anne Mulcahy. Burns proved her toughness by renegotiating labor contracts with labor unions during Xerox's turnaround efforts in 2001. Today, she is Xerox's president.

Ultimately what shapes attitudes toward a leader is trust. Can I trust this person to do the right thing by me, my team, and my company? And a key attribute of trust is respect. That attribute emerges from observation over the long run. People watch their leaders do what is right, even when it is hard, as well as unpopular, and they develop a sense of respect.

To lead, an ability to communicate as well as understand, support and develop people is essential. Business is tough, yes, but a little warmth around the edges sure helps people get through the day.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker, and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being "How Great Leaders Get Great Results." Visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com.

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