Picture of Stephan van Rooden

Stephan van Rooden

We’ve gone too soft on soft skills


Over the last couple of decades we have been training our management in developing so called soft skills. There is an entire industry that provides managers with new ‘skills’ like ‘emotional leadership’, ‘coaching from your personal life’s mission’, ‘inspiring productivity through storytelling’ or ‘emotional hopping towards your annual plan’. I am just making these up but I can imagine you have attend a training like this. While there might be some value in such courses. What is lacking in day-to-day practice is actual leadership. That means you don’t have to nice all the time. Or have to create a fluffy world filled with unicorns for your employees. I believe we have gone soft on the soft skills. 

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Don’t be nice, be clear!

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to be nice all the time or need to be liked! At home I lead when I take the horses outside or when I walk the dogs. They all have learned the few rules they need to obey. A set of clear boundaries they need to stay within. For example, always walk behind me or no pulling the leash. If they break one of these rules, I will let them know this is not accepted. Sometimes I only need to make a sound and raise my voice a little and that’s is enough. We move back to the required state and continue. That is how I am able to walk with 5 horses holding them in one hand. Leading them! 

A true leader is fair, is clear about what’s expected and takes decisions when needed. Take a look at a clip from a well known Dutch basketball coach, Ton Boot.

What do you think, did this player make it to the team? No, he didn’t! Not because he was a bad player, on the contrary, he would have been the best player on the team. But he did not meet the rules laid out at the beginning of the training. These rules apply to all team members. These were clear and if not met, there are consequences to it. That’s leadership! Even if it means you have to let the best player go.

A positive spin to something bad

When I show this clip during a training, many people feel uncomfortable. They are not used to this. They feel bad for the player and don’t like the coach very much. And that is what is wrong with today’s leadership from my point of view.

We are so focussed on the people, on developing our soft skills that we have gone soft! 

One day I received a question if it would be possible to spin a bad outcome in a positive action for a leader? If someone broke the rules, if we could frame that in a positive way?


Why would you? There has to be a consequence to a bad outcome. We don’t do it when it’s the other way around, do we? Downplaying a huge success, we never do that!

So, why should we spin a bad thing into something positive? It’s not fun, and you should not like to do that as a leader. But you are obligated to do it, your role is to have your employees improve. Not to harm them or just to make them feel bad. But to provide them with the ability to learn from what happened. We have all fallen down many times before we learned to walk. There is no other way or slide deck with a 5-step-approach to teach you that! So toughen up a little, will you?

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