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The soft skills of leadership

Posted by Diana Osagie on Monday, 5 August 2019
Diana Osagie

You have worked hard and promotion has come your way. The CPD courses, hours spent reading and the constant seeking of ‘whole school opportunities’ have paid off.

Finally appointed to the leadership position that has eluded you for some time, you will make this work. The vision is in your heart, you picture yourself sharing, collaborating with like-minded people, you will make a difference. It’s your time.

This is a valid picture of the inception of leadership. Full of hope and so it should be, school leadership is the cradle of hope for thousands of young people in our schools across the nation. As a leader, you will be adept in processes that underpin school improvement and strategies that secure effective teaching.

You know how to write an action plan, hold staff to account and engage that elusive parent who never comes to the parents evening unless you practically pay them!

You have successfully completed leadership courses, so let me share with you the soft skills of leadership that are rarely part of any course syllabus, but will influence the success of your leadership journey far more than you realise. The leader who is appointed and thrives in their position is the one who grasps these concepts early.

Robles identifies 10 soft skills needed in leadership and in the workplace generally:

  • Communication
  • Professionalism
  • Courtesy
  • Work ethic
  • Flexibility
  • Teamwork
  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Positive attitude

Every school leader would recognise these playing a role in their day, but we underestimate the weight these soft skills have in relation to how our leadership is received by others.

The underestimation may stem from the term ‘soft skills’ itself. Think about the word soft. It's the obvious contrast to hard—as in the phrases; hard data, hard evidence, and hard thinking. If hard implies objective, clearly defined and reliable: soft must imply subjective, woolly, and unreliable—soft-hearted rather than hard-headed. Soft outcomes are sentimental or ‘warm and fuzzy’. It undermines a claim for serious attention.


We usually think of skill as a procedure someone can be trained to do. Developing a skill seems like a technical matter, for example training someone to write a school strategy document or deliver 3-part lessons. Guiding someone to develop an attitude of respect or integrity is seen differently. Should effectiveness in soft skills be seen in parallel with its harder counterparts? I think so. 

Picture this…The receptionist is frazzled, holding the phone away from his ear as a voice screeches down the line. You come past the reception, on your way to lunch and see this. A parent is giving him hell because they have rung the school 5 times and nobody has got back to them.

You offer to take the call right there, knowing full well this will demand at least ¼ of your lunch break over a situation that has nothing to do with you. The receptionist is both relieved and grateful, knowing he can trust you to deal with the issue. Integrity, the soft skill that says you are a leader who does what is right especially when you may not personally gain. 

"Leaders will claim an abundance of soft skills in their repertoire; I believe in getting to know my staff, the families whom they care about, the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the role."

Being highly motivated, dedicated and loyal, and having worked in a number of different schools and at various levels, I believe I am now ready for a senior leadership role.

Developing and supervising a diverse range of students I harnessed the power of a traditionally rebellious and free subculture to facilitate a stronger relationship between teacher and student - laying the foundation for a more engaging education, behaviour and academic progress. (No…I am not sure what this one meant either).

Colleagues who are looking to step into a new level of leadership, realise that soft skills are seen as important, but in writing, they come across as disingenuous! Don’t let this stop you.

Develop confidence in articulating your prowess in the 10 soft skills whilst talking about the impact of your hard- skills competence. Describe the influence you hold by the way you lead. ’It is often said that hard skills will get you an interview, but you need soft skills to get and keep the job. Success is based not only on what you know but also on how you communicate it ’ Klaus 2010.


Picture this…It’s 5.30pm and you have had enough for today. Nothing untoward has happened, it’s the thought of the long commute home and the early start tomorrow that is making you feel weary. Switching off the computer, you hear a tap at the door and the inevitable question, “Have you got a minute?”.

The true answer is no. You have not had a spare minute for days and certainly, you are not in the mood to find one now. But you promised your staff that you would be a leader with an open-door policy.

You promised genuine channels of communication and that you may not always agree, but you will always listen. You promised, out loud, in that staff meeting when you were feeling good; having been appointed to the leadership role your CPD courses have trained you for.

Leaders in schools are jugglers, holding a myriad of issues and agendas aloft with a dexterity that is worthy of a circus performance.

20 minutes later the member of staff leaves. They have a resolution to an issue that has prevented them from moving forward for weeks, you are still weary, you still have a long commute home and an early start. But you have something else too…the respect and gratitude of a colleague, the social capital that comes when staff talk of your soft skills over coffee and cake at break time and that warm fuzzy feeling all good leaders recognise; when you leave late in the evening, not because of a procedure but because of true leadership. 

As you progress in leadership you should realise, ‘either I become a master juggler, risk dropping the lot, or I learn to delegate and distribute the leadership with others, I cannot do all of this’.

Lightbulb brain

The leader who tries to do it all. Refusing to allow others to rise and take responsibility alongside them. The right answer must always come out of their mouth, someone else on the team to be seen as masterful is something they cannot allow. Nobody questions their hard competence.

They can plan an after-school intervention in their sleep, they can write the report for governors without breaking a sweat. Tasks are complete, work gets done, data is submitted on time and the students have all made perfect linear progress. There is nothing wrong… but it doesn’t feel right.

The skill of flexibility (you are teachable and willing to adapt to the new ideas of others) is so far removed from how you engage with others.

If a colleague has a good idea, an innovation to share, they will never do so whilst this leader is present. When staff are in need of encouragement, a word of sensitivity as they labour at the chalk face, they will never look to this leader for support. When it is time to celebrate a win, there is an undercurrent of resentment as this leader stands to make a speech. 

As I said, ‘there is nothing wrong’, except, that which makes your leadership palatable for others is missing. The skill of courtesy (etiquette, graciousness and respect) is absent from your daily interactions.

You come across as hard and unbending but you think you are being strong and resilient. If you are not sure how to assess your level of soft skill; 360-degree reviews, feedback (how did I do?) or feed-forward (how can I do it better next time?) act as professional mirrors and reflect the experience of others when you interact with them.

Be strong, be confident, be courageous. Lions who rule in their domain still have soft fur, this does not mean that the other animals question whether they are truly a lion! 



About our Community Expert

DianaOsagi_BlueCircle-1Diana Osagie
Community Expert | CEO Courageous Leadership Consultancy

After 16 years in senior leadership including six as a secondary headteacher, Diana is now one of the UK’s most recognised education leadership coaches.

She specialises in helping leaders and their teams develop their inner layer of courage; essential for true leadership and resilience.

Topics: Leadership


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