1. Section Editor(s): Raso, Rosanne DNP, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, FAONL

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Have you read or learned about "soft skills" in your leadership practice? That's the phrase often used to describe overall people skills for leaders. If you're a fan of relational leadership, and appreciate its well-researched positive workforce outcomes, you may be wondering why we'd consider labeling relational competencies as soft skills? In my thinking, they're not soft at all, and we can make the case that "soft" is hard.

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Relational leadership is based on...yes, relationships, which are foundational for a successful leader. We're generally familiar with transformational, authentic, and servant leadership, which are relational styles discussed in the nursing literature for years. People skills flourish in this type of leader. Newer, and nursing-based, are authentic nurse leadership and human-centered healthcare leadership, which include caring in their models. Is caring "soft"? It may be in your paradigm, but it can be hard to be a caring leader when there are expected outcomes that are transactional and not people-oriented.


Although the various relational leadership frameworks have differences, they share attributes of communication, shared decision-making, giving voice, and promoting healthy work environments, to name a few. That important work isn't easy to achieve. The relatively easier management skills are the traditional technical, business responsibilities, such as assessing budget variances, completing payroll, doing audits, following the corrective action process, and running a staff meeting, which are supposedly the "hard" skills. It seems it was opposite day when soft and hard leadership skills were defined. Soft is hard.


National nurse leaders have called for relational leadership as a necessary component of workforce recovery. A sense of belonging, inclusion, and engagement doesn't happen in a transactional work environment. Professor Maria Shirey has used authentic leader development in the clinic setting to achieve sustainable positive patient and organizational outcomes (as she describes, soft skills = hard outcomes). Wilhelmina Manzano notes in the recent AONL (American Organization for Nursing Leadership) Workforce Compendium that "soft skills are often overlooked in leadership development today but are crucial to leader success," which is exactly the issue. Or at least one of the issues.


We should be teaching and evaluating relational skills for not only new nurse leaders, but every nurse leader and every team member. Imagine if everyone from every discipline and support service practiced listening, collaboration, respectful and clear communication, curiosity, and empathy in our work environment. I suspect an engaged workforce with sustained positive outcomes for patients and each other would be widely prevalent. Recruitment and retention would improve as well. Soft = hard.


Management consultant Minette Norman calls for the narrative to change and renames soft skills as "brave leadership superpowers." Especially for nurse leaders, this makes more sense. There's no way that old-fashioned, transactional leadership rooted in a technical, nonempowering approach will move the needle on pandemic recovery and strengthen the nursing workforce. Relational competencies are more tangible than the rhetoric on "soft" would lead you to believe. They're definable, teachable, and observable.


You know a leader who connects with people when you see one. That leader had to learn and practice those skills; it's not wired into one's genetic structure. Younger team members who've grown up in front of screens and in a virtual world may be especially vulnerable to needing to adopt and refine people skills. Using them to produce results is even harder, and worth every minute. Soft is hard.



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