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Understanding And Applying Hard Management & Soft Leadership Skills

It’s confusing. Managing vs. Leading. Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills. What does it really take to succeed in management?

There are a lot of mixed messages and misunderstandings. For example, the phrases “hard management skills” and “soft leadership skills” are commonplace. But they’re problematic. Both sets of adjectives are misleading. Their coupling is alarming.

What Are Hard Management Skills & Soft Leadership Skills?

Graphic Showing Pulled 2 Directions“Hard” is defined as “solid and firm; unyielding to pressure; impenetrable; firmly formed.” The word suggests strength and certainty.

By contrast, “soft” is defined as “yielding readily to pressure; easily penetrated, divided or changed; deficient in hardness.” This word suggests weakness and impermanence.

Then there’s the use of “management,” defined as “the persons controlling the affairs of a business or institution; executives collectively; executive ability.” Compare that to “leadership” being defined as “the instance of guiding; the foremost leaders of a group; ones who direct.” Put these together and, according to these definitions, you get:

  1. “hard management” skills describing those in control as strong and certain in their work, and
  2. “soft leadership” skills implying that the folks at the very top are weak and malleable.

Maybe that’s why “soft skills” are so underrated and undeveloped. Maybe it’s why management skills are prioritized above leadership development. And maybe it’s why degree programs, corporate training budgets, and individual goals focus so heavily on “hard management skills” vs. “soft leadership skills.”

The truth is that “hard skills” are meant as a way to group skills that are specific to a functional area. “Soft skills” include all the interpersonal and transferable skills that are not technical or specific to a certain job function. Read more here about the differences.

There’s another issue. The word “leader” and the act of leadership are not meant to be reserved for the select few at the top of an org chart. Those are senior managers and executives. They are not necessarily leaders. The very nature of leading is that people are following. Examples abound where senior executives lost their followers despite their positional power.

Leadership occurs at every level. People with no direct reports can – and do – lead. They affect others by:

  • Guiding
  • Influencing
  • Instructing
  • Supporting
  • Enabling
  • Ennoble

Those people, in turn, willingly choose to follow them.

Being a manager does not make you a leader. Being a leader does not require you to first be a manager.

But if you are a manager, you will be more successful if you do both: managing the work and leading the people.

Take a look at this chart to better understand the differences.

A Manager:

A Leader:

Has a short-range perspective

Has a long-range perspective

Imitates others


Accepts the status quo

Challenges the status quo

Bases power on position or authority

Bases power on personal influence

Demonstrates skill in supervision

Demonstrates skill in persuasion

Works toward employee compliance

Works toward employee commitment

Plans tactics

Plans strategy

Uses a “transactional” communication style

Uses a “transformational” communication style

The Importance of Developing Soft Leadership Skills

People ascend to management after proving themselves capable in their functional roles. Most often, the move into management is a vertical one within the same department or area of expertise. Sales managers come from sales; HR managers have experience in HR, etc.

Many new managers struggle to make the transition into management because they rely on their functional expertise rather than developing new skills for managing people.

Many veteran managers struggle to reach the next rung on the career ladder because they manage work effectively but fail to lead people. They show up exclusively as managers, handling the work that needs to get done in the short-term. They don’t exhibit leadership behaviors that build for the future.

And many executives find themselves caught in this unfortunate situation, too. They are promoted to the C-Suite because they have done excellent work as managers. But, when it comes time to inspire people and innovate, they lack leadership know-how.

Becoming an Effective Leader With Soft & Hard Leadership Skills

It takes quality management to get the job done today. Managers must be proficient in setting clear expectations, providing timely feedback, managing performance, and driving results through the right quantity and quality of appropriate actions on the front line. There are skills to be learned and mastered for managers to be effective in all these ways.

Managing the work is only part of the job. It’s the part that will help you reach today’s goals. It’s the part that will get the job done in the short-term.

Leading people is the other part of a manager’s responsibilities. It’s not optional. And it’s not “soft.” It’s critically important, and it’s the only way for you, members of your team, and – ultimately – your organization to get ahead.

Leadership is what takes people into the future. It’s what gets them to be so engaged in their work that they’ll apply additional discretionary effort to do more than the bare minimum. It’s what ignites their passion and emotionally connects them to the work they do.

One definition of leadership, from Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is “the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” That’s a far cry from the standard definition of management, which is “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.”

In the workplace, following orders from an authority figure is not optional (if you want to keep your job). But following someone’s lead is optional. We choose to emulate those we admire. We choose how much discretionary effort to invest in our work. We choose which direction we will go, and we only follow those who are taking us in our preferred direction.

The problem with using command-and-control management tactics is that they do not inspire, engage, motivate, captivate, or mobilize others. Getting people so committed to a shared aspiration that they would choose even to struggle for it requires heart-and-soul leadership.

To get where you want to be in the future, you need to lead.  

Finding the Right Balance for Soft & Hard Skills

Let’s look at this another way.

Managers focus on getting results. They tell people what actions to take to get those results. They control the resources and set the pace to ensure those actions will occur. They set expectations for how and how often every action is to occur, and they hire and train and coach and fire people according to the quality and quantity of those actions and results.

In this illustration, the focus of management is found in the top two portions of the pyramid.

Hard Management Skills Soft Leadership SkillsHere’s the catch. Every manager has experienced this. Sometimes, when you’re not looking, people will choose different actions. They won’t do what you’ve instructed them to do. They do other things or they do things in a non-conforming way. This impedes results.

For managers, this is frustrating. You told them. You showed them. You trained them. You equipped them. You told them again. And, still, they are doing it wrong. Why?

The answer is in the next section of the pyramid. People choose their actions based on their beliefs. If they think they know a better way, they’ll choose it (when you’re not looking). They won’t believe you if their own beliefs are in conflict with what you’re asking them to do.

Beliefs are shaped by experiences. If something worked for me in the past, I will believe that it’s the best way to do it again. If I see others succeeding because they do operate in a certain way, my experience of observing them causes me to believe their way is the right way (no matter what you say!).

If you want to change actions, you have to make sure beliefs and experiences reinforce the actions you’re requiring.

This is where leadership comes into play. Leaders inspire by showing people how their own interests can be realized. They model what they expect of others, and they are consistent and credible in doing so. They hold people accountable for their work at the same time they enable and encourage people to do that work.  

Leaders create experiences that shape beliefs that lead to appropriate actions and yield desired results.

Leadership Vs. Management in Action

Here’s an example:

A seller is accountable for delivering $100,000 in new business each quarter. To achieve these results, analytics prove that getting to that number requires a minimum of five solid contacts with qualified buyers per week. Of course, getting five conversations means making significantly more calls, sending more emails, etc. These are the actions needed to achieve the desired results.

The activity standards set by a sales manager require each seller to make 20 outbound calls per day. Sellers are trained on the cadence for contact attempts and on the techniques for reaching the right person. They are provided with leads and have a sophisticated system for logging contacts made. This is all the work of management.

Soon after onboarding and training, sales managers routinely see new sellers deviating from the activity standards. They see lots of LinkedIn connection requests and online research about prospects but not the outbound call volume they require. They hold group meetings and have 1-to-1 discussions about this activity standard. Even so, some sellers resist making 20 calls per day.

When sellers are asked to explain what’s keeping them from making those calls, it isn’t outright insubordination or call reluctance or laziness. It’s their belief that something else is going to work better. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that they have their own experiences that shaped those beliefs. They’ve been successful in previous roles using different tactics. They’ve heard that social selling is the new and improved approach. They had positive responses to social connections and negative ones to cold calls.

It takes leadership to provide new experiences that shape new beliefs. The right balance is what makes managers successful.