Leadership Development Dilemma: Priority on Soft or Hard Skills?

It is fair to say that current Leadership Development executives have developed the content of their programs primarily on soft skills.  It is also fair to say that line executives are much more concerned with hard skills.  Therein is the dilemma!

Before proceeding, we need to define and illustrate the two terms.  Soft skills generally include interpersonal skills and attributes (communications, listening, motivation, creative thinking, compassion, counseling, etc.), leadership behaviors (servant, morality, trust, authenticity, humility, integrity, etc.), leadership styles (democratic, autocratic, etc.), and key management skills (writing objectives, planning, delegating, problem-solving, reviewing performance, interviewing, etc.).

Hard skills generally cover those job-related, technical, finance and business skills needed to achieve success in the position.  At the lower and middle levels of management, these skills tend to come from the position’s job description – the primary function and the four or five key responsibilities.  At the senior and upper levels of management, these skills tend to be more directly related to the particular job’s role in achieving specific business results in the department, division or company while being more broadly business-oriented.


1. Functional Acumen – understanding various business functions (sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, etc.) and sub-functions (for manufacturing, they are production, quality control, manufacturing engineering, inventory control, etc.), along with leading major multi-functional and/or multi-divisional team efforts to achieve critical business results.

2. Financial Acumen – understanding the company and division Income and Cash Flow Statements and Balance Sheet, sales volume and gross profit margins for major products, budget/profit planning and financial analyses.

3. Fiscal Year Business Objectives – for the company, divisions, and key executives.

4. Business Strategy – understanding the company and divisional strategic plans, major product/market development plans, financial plans and contingency plans.

5. Executive Skills – Board and top management interaction on key business issues, stock market analysis and analyst interaction, championing innovation and continuous improvement, consistently achieving profitable financial and strategic results, creating an effective workplace culture, leadership, and so on.

Since leadership development programs that cover hard skills are not commonplace, a real-life example from a $4 billion company is appropriate. A business needs analysis was conducted for a group of 80 division and business unit presidents who were running businesses ranging from $25 to $400 million per annum. It revealed that the key subjects for the program were Financial Management, Strategic Product/Market Planning, Customer Executive Management Relations, and Leadership.

A highly successful 30-hour program was developed to meet those needs which taught leadership in response to the practical business needs to improve Income and Cash Flow performance, determine the next version of the products/services and find new markets for them (along with the current ones), and examine how to better interact with your customer’s top management to more fully understand their strategic goals and how our products and services could better help them do that. In doing so, hard and soft skills were TAUGHT TOGETHER, within the practical context of the leader’s current business objectives and plans as they currently existed.


In the CEO and line executive’s eyes, who are the ultimate customers of all leadership development programs, the proportional amount of soft and hard skills varies significantly based on management level.  My experience with CEOs and top-line executives in several large companies across four major industries showed that they value the following skills mix in their leaders.

Lower                              Middle                                   Senior/Upper

75%-25%                        50%-50%                               25%-75%

Two highly reputable studies support the above skills mix.  The first one is Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his January 2016 book entitled “Getting Beyond the BS of Leadership Literature”, who concludes that there are several problems inherent in the majority of LD programs.  Such programs that are framed almost solely within the context of soft skills grossly oversimplify a much more complex reality and reinforce a problematic, trait-based and personality-centric view of human behavior.

The second one is the study by Ron Carucci in his January 2016 Harvard Business Review article entitled “A 10-year Study Reveals What Great Executives Know and Do”.  After interviewing over 2,700 executives, he concludes there are four recurring patterns of executives skills that distinguish the performance of exceptional executives – knowing the financial and market/product realities of your industry competitors; knowing your company’s functional strengths and weaknesses, and how best to coordinate them in any companywide effort; providing great decision-making based on the use of analytical and quantitative tools and measures for all aspects of the business; and forming deep-trusting business relationships.

In sum, Pfeffer is telling us what subject content should NOT be emphasized, while Carucci is telling us what subject content SHOULD be emphasized, in the leadership development programs for middle, senior and upper management.


The answer to the dilemma is to develop leadership development programs that are reflective of the Soft-Hard Skills/Management Level mix in your company.  In doing so, you would better satisfy the business needs (which are typically far different than training needs) of your line executives, who are the ultimate customer.  Moreover, the content of these programs should practically apply the appropriate skills to the leader’s actual business objectives, plans, challenges, risks, and problems.


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.

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  1. The mix has to be there for management ( senior and middle) and employees to be continually productive and growing themselves. The mix should be in-bedded in the culture of the company ( small or large) and should be continually supported by all levels of management. Part of this process should be in the recruiting and on boarding of team members at all levels. Departmental meetings and management meetings should at times include the support of this objective and it should also be part of all employee reviews….

  2. Jack, thank you for writing and sharing your article. I agree with you wholeheartedly that leaders in today’s business climate should be mandated to have a healthy balance of soft and hard skills. An overabundance of either will not result in productivity or efficiency. Having said that it must be realized each industry has its own culture that may negate the need for one or the other or allow for an imbalance.

    • Thanks for your comment Joel. I agree with one caveat. In any one industry, the balance may vary in favor of hard vs. soft skills, but there will never be a situation where one set of skills will negate the other. Jack.

    • Jack, thank you for your response to my comment. From my many years (past and present) of experience, I can tell you that yes, in fact, there will be situations where one skill set will negate the other.

  3. Thanks so much for this piece, Jack. In my experience, business schools have a strong bias towards hard skills which is why Leadership programs in the marketplace have had to fill the need for developing what people call soft skills (I personally hate the language around soft skills as it seems to be inherent judgement). But I’m seeing a shift in what business schools are offering, especially in Executive Education. I work for the Cox Business School Exec Ed and they are marrying the two beautifully with great success. What’s key, in my mind, is to recognize that both are critical to success.

    • Thanks for your comments Kimberly. My experience with many top business schools is that the shift is coming very slowly as they continue to concentrate on the hard skills. It seems to me that the impetus for properly integrating both skills together lies with the HR and Leadership Development communities. It can be done and it can significantly improve the importance and viability of both communities if they do so. As I said in my article, simply relying on soft skills has not proven the practical business value of leadership programs, even though such programs have a practical opportunity for doing so. Good luck in your continued efforts to do so. Hopefully, my article will help you in some small way. Jack

    • Thanks Kimberly. Hopefully, it will support much of your work at the Cox Business School. From my work with many other top business schools, the impetus to include the proper mix of skills in such programs at the B schools and corporate institutes has to come from the companies themselves. In many of my articles on, I have provided many examples of how HR and Leadership Development groups can bring BUSINESS into their daily work.

    • Thanks for kind words Kimberly. Hopefully, my article can help you in your Executive Ed efforts at Cox and elsewhere. Feel free to use it in any way you feel it might be helpful. My experience with many of the top B-schools however, is that there is a long way to go. The impetus for this type of change must come from the current cadre of HR leaders who need to demonstrate the need for BOTH skills in their own programs and in interactions with the B-schools. Best regards. Jack