“Workers want their managers to have leadership skills.” At first glance, a seemingly straightforward statement; obvious even, perhaps? But what if we posed the question: Are leadership and management one and the same? Surely, leadership is a manager’s core trait – someone who can inspire, motivate and galvanize a team by leading by example? And this is where the once-clear picture starts to blur.

Leadership — the catch-all term that encompasses soft skills, job-related knowledge and the underlying ability to steer a team toward a common goal — is the fundamental competency that today’s workers are desperately seeking — and that tomorrow’s manager must prioritize. Not all managers are leaders, and many lack the foundation on which leadership is built: soft skills.

To understand (and convey) the true value of soft skills – that core foundation of leadership excellence – we should pivot the way we think about the traits and qualities that comprise it. What if, instead of “soft skills,” we talked about “human-centered leadership”: an approach that puts people at the heart of all the everyday interactions that combine to make a great leader. The way managers communicate, think and approach challenges – with people front of mind – is the non-negotiable element on which all soft skills can be developed.

In 2022, we have more generations of workers melding drastically different values, competencies and requirements than ever before — placing additional pressure on managers to create an environment where everyone can succeed. Managers are tasked with some of the most challenging day-to-day tasks, but are rarely given the investment in the personal development they need to succeed. Technical experts may find themselves promoted to management positions by virtue of seniority – not because of their skills, aptitude or enthusiasm for management – without adequate training, and, for long-standing managers, it may have been some time since they engaged with management training.

For most managers, the balancing act of meeting demands from higher management, providing the resources to direct reports, and collaborating with peers on side projects soon stack up. The solution? Upskilling. But with so many competing priorities, how can managers narrow down the key leadership skills they need to develop?

For Today’s Managers to Become Tomorrow’s Leaders, Organizations Need to Step Up

Taking a brief look at the training opportunities managers are afforded paints a startling picture: one in four (26%) managers have never received management training, while two-fifths (39%) only received management training when they first stepped into their role.

There’s no denying management training is crucial, but the development of human-centered leadership skills is equally necessary for today’s managers.

The modern manager needs to demonstrate a broad range of leadership skills, and human-centered skills are often among the traits that are most impactful (and in demand). Everyone benefits from leadership development: workers, managers, their managers and the organization as a whole. The human-centered skills that accompany other learned skills are what sets good managers apart from great ones.

Where Should We Focus Leadership Development Efforts?

Some of the core leadership abilities of the modern manager are, in fact, human-centered leadership skills: Transferable skills that can be applied to almost any situation. Inclusive leadership — creating a psychologically safe space within a team — is the most revered. Building a team instilled with a sense of purpose, a voice, and determination to grow their own abilities is a tall order, and for a manager to deliver on this, they need support and guidance to develop human-centered leadership skills.

According to a 2022 poll of employees by Digits, the nine most in-demand skills needed by managers are:

  1. Leadership skills (48%)
  2. Verbal communication skills (35%)
  3. Teamwork skills (35%)
  4. Empathy (30%)
  5. Problem-solving skills (29%)
  6. A strong work ethic (21%)
  7. Good time management (18%)
  8. Conflict resolution (15%)
  9. Written communication skills (8%)

These skills have no defined outcomes, but the effects — although not entirely measurable — are deemed to have the greatest impact by and for employees. It makes sense that a worker would look to their manager for support and guidance on a range of topics, and when a manager is prepared with the skills and knowledge to navigate often sensitive topics, it can make the world of difference to all involved.

Looking at these nine skills from a slightly different perspective, there are some underlying themes.

Workers who expressed the need for skilled communication (both verbal and written), empathy and leadership qualities may be looking for an underlying foundation of trust and connection to their manager.

Employees who prioritize team work, problem-solving abilities and conflict resolution may be in search of a collaborative environment in the form of a manager who overcomes uncertainty by drawing their team members’ strengths.

Self-awareness — and a commitment to constantly upgrade their skills — may be the earmark of an exceptional leader in the making. Organizations should show a similar commitment to helping identify and support these individuals to reach their potential.

Once organizations prioritize human-centered leadership skills development within their learning and development strategy for managers, the picture comes into focus again, too. Everyone benefits when managers have the right skills, tools and confidence in their ability to lead their team.