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Leadership is Social

Becoming a Social Leader“Your social skills are good for something”. This was the headline earlier this week from one of my favorite email feeds: The Daily Stat from the Harvard Business Review (HBR). It’s a quick read and often has interesting facts. Here’s the key statistic:

“Between 1980 and 2012, the number of workplace tasks requiring social skills jumped 24%, those requiring math skills rose just 11%, and tasks requiring routine skills have steadily declined, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education associate professor David Deming.”

While the underlying research focused on computer automation of tasks, the finding about the increasing importance of social skills is more noteworthy for students of leadership. Social skills help people manage and adapt to change, increasingly the name of the game in today’s VUCA world. In order to simply manage at work, and especially to navigate in and through change, you simply must have a skillset that enables you to work effectively with and through others.

So how do you get these essential skills? While you certainly get basic training from your upbringing and schooling, ultimately social skills, like other key leadership attributes, can only be learned the hard way: from experience. Like it or not, the principles of adult learning are particularly pertinent to the honing of social skills, whether it’s the vagaries of the college social scene or the tricky game of office and organizational politics-especially when change is in the air. Adults (and for social skills, others as well) learn best:

  • From experience;
  • In context;
  • Over time;
  • In interactions with others;
  • With feedback

Leaders who are able to read social cues (the most subtle form of feedback) and develop their skills to interact productively with others have a more solid foundation to make the jump from technical leadership to leading people.

Over the past 15 years of building simulation-based learning experiences for leaders at Fortune 500 companies, we have learned that the business world is full of strong technical leaders. They ride their technical skills to positons of increased power, scope and influence… which is precisely when the need for social skills starts to become critical. The learning edge for our leaders almost always has a significant social/interpersonal component.

So don’t ignore the math and your technical skills: they are for many an important piece of the entry ticket to the job you want. But once there, pay close attention to those around you, watch those social cues, and learn from your experience: that’s a path to leadership.


Nick Noyes is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.