soft skills

AI is absolutely dominating headlines and conversations right now. AI can chat, draw astonishingly specific images, and make you sound like you have a depth of knowledge on virtually any subject.

No doubt it’s impressive, but it can’t do everything. AI can’t show empathy, at least not authentically. AI can respond to people in a socially appropriate way based on its data bank, but it can’t conjure up genuine care, empathy, or emotional support. So, while we consider all the things AI can do, being a human, with the power to relate to another human, is one thing AI simply cannot do. And in the world of leadership, nothing is more important.

The term “soft skills” originated in the late 1960s by the US Army, and I am sure that being soft was the farthest thing in their minds. Soft skills were defined as skills that didn’t center around machinery. That’s fitting, given that right now we’re literally talking about these skills as the ones that differentiate us from machines.

As a former US Marine, I attribute much of what I know about leadership to my experience in the military. And when I think of the soft skills I learned in this time—valued characteristics like interpersonal skills, strength of character, and tenacity—I know first-hand that the military absolutely emphasized the importance that great leadership brings to an organization’s success. They also recognized that being great at these skills doesn’t happen by accident. It must be actively developed and honed.

In the decades since its origin, the term “soft skills” has become commonplace. It’s held onto much of its original meaning, and still reflects all the qualities listed above. But somewhere along the way in business, it sometimes felt as if soft skills were considered a “nice to have” rather than critical. And from my perspective in today’s world, where technology is radically transforming so many roles in ways we can’t even imagine yet, they’ve never been more important. The very definition includes everything that a machine might struggle with: emotional intelligence, teamwork, communication/listening, creativity, time management, critical thinking, adaptability, and—of course—empathy.

Interestingly, as we recently honored March as Women’s History Month, it’s also worth noting that the Harvard Business Review reports that women score higher than men on most leadership skills—and many of the skills they looked at would be considered ‘soft’ skills, like building relationships, collaboration/teamwork, communication, problem-solving, and inspiring/motivating others. And since these strengths are often more associated as feminine traits, it’s sadly not a surprise that they haven’t always been given the importance they deserve. Without question, it’s time for us all to fight to make that change.

It’s not hard to see why these skills matter. Warren Buffett said that the most important thing to look for when hiring is integrity. That’s a human skill. And according to a whopping 89% of recruiters who were surveyed for LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, a lack of soft skills is usually the reason a hire doesn’t work out. I doubt any business should need a stronger proof point than that.

So obviously, the ability to empathize and connect with people at work should never have been considered optional. And while this realization gains traction throughout the business world, it’s also brought a call to change how we think of and even refer to these critical skills. As Simon Sinek and others have pointed out, these soft skills are in fact human skills. And every one of us would be better off for developing them further. Not only because we’d be better leaders, employees, partners, friends, parents, and strangers on the street—but also because they are the key thing that differentiates us from AI. They are the irreplaceable value you can bring to your role as a leader, not only today but in the future.

AI can already replace a lot of tasks. It can already replace a lot of jobs. And it’s only going to get better at it. What’s clunky now will be astonishing before you know it.

If we’re looking at the future for your businesses in the new reality of AI, great leaders realize that we need to focus on the things only we can do, based on our problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, vision, and other skills and experience. These human skills are an incomparable source of strength.  

To continue adding value as AI grows in sophistication; to be a better leader; to be a better person—human skills are nonnegotiable. Recognize them. Reward them. Develop them. Hone them. It’s important for everyone.