Key People Skills Essential for a Leader

Dr. John Townsend

May 17, 2017

people skills

Neuroscience and performance research always comes down to two groups of skill sets that are necessary for a leader to succeed.

The first group is task skills. These are the “doing” aspects of running the organization, involving primarily guarding the mission, messaging the vision, setting the strategy, creating the structure, systems and operations, and ensuring execution. Every leader must know and monitor these.

The second group is people skills. These are the “relating” aspects, which center on creating inspiration, trust, healthy culture, challenge and team development. These skills are sometimes called the soft skills, but they actually are not. They are replicatable, research-based and metrically-proven skills that are just as critical as the task skills.

In my experience, most leaders are somewhere between 60-40 to 90-10, task over relationship. Their training has lent itself to strategy, metrics and accountability. But as the research continues to come out, it is increasingly important for the leader to learn several specific people abilities which drive everything. Here are the top 3:

Listening well. While leaders must clarify roles and expectations, they must also “read between the lines.” All too often, we let our people talk, but in our minds, we are formulating our response to them before they are finished. I often have my clients paraphrase what others are saying, asking, “Do I get your point of view now?”, before they respond.

Being professionally vulnerable. Leaders have been taught to be bulletproof, and not show weakness, for fear of discouraging their people. However, we are finding that people are actually drawn more to a boss who is open about their weaknesses and failures, and lets them know that they are working on improving.

Being direct and yet connected. Great leaders get right to the point when they have to say a hard truth to a direct. But they do not disconnect from their warmth and their care for their people. This is called integration, the ability to be honest and yet emotionally present. It is more difficult than you think. Learn to keep your eye contact and your connectedness, even during the tough talks.

Strategy and people skills integrate for the best performance. Best to your leadership.


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