What Is the Softer Side of Leadership?

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von BuseckMay 13, 20228 Minutes

Craig von Buseck: Having worked in many different organizations and having run my own organizations, I think the concept of the softer side of leadership is wonderful, but I don’t always see it in real life situations. Tell us what you mean by the softer side and how it can actually be applicable for people who are driven by the bottom line – and the need to have more money coming in than going out. How do you balance that softer side with the business reality?

Eugene Habecker: Most leadership books that you pick up deal with the hard stuff. You’re dealing with analytics, you’re dealing with financial statements, you’re dealing with strategic planning, and you deal a whole lot with leading teams and things like that. And I want to be quick to say that those are necessary in leadership, but my argument is that they’re not enough. Some people would say that the hard skills will get you the corner suite, but it’s the soft skills that will keep you there.

CVB: Ah, okay.

Eugene: A perfect illustration of what I mean by soft skills occurred at Taylor University when I was president there. Two days before my inauguration as president, we had a semi-truck that crossed the median. Five people were killed, including students and staff members at Taylor. Then five weeks later we found out that the bodies had been misidentified. One girl that we thought had died in the accident and was buried in Michigan was actually alive and well in Fort Wayne. You may have seen the news show on mistaken identity. It became a big seller, even a New York Times bestseller. During that time, hard skills did not serve me well. I had to do at least three things. I had to absorb the chaos. Where do you learn how to do that? You have to remain calm and you have to provide hope because the community is in confusion. Soft skills speak into a leader’s ability to do those kinds of things.

I think soft skills are necessary and essential to be an effective leader.

CVB: I absolutely agree. So, as the former president of a Christian university, obviously you are not only experienced in the hard skills of the analytical side of things, but you’re influenced by your faith. So talk to me a little bit about how faith speaks into this.

Eugene: That’s a good segue into how this book is different from the majority of leadership books that you’ll read. This book does not answer the question, “what is it that leaders do?” This book really addresses two primary questions. So right off the bat, I would say the content is different. The first question it raises is, “how do you develop maturity or mature Christian leadership?” The first five chapters are devoted to answering that question.

The second question is, “what would mature Christian leadership look like in an organization, a business, or a home?” And that’s what the second part is about. The first point I make in the book is that you’ve got to create time that allows for deep thinking and to wrestle with the issues that you have to deal with as a leader, either personally or organizationally.

To do that, you need to embrace the idea of sacred space. The reality that most leaders face is this: There is this relentless press of tactical and operational issues of the moment that are constantly cascading over the desk of the leader.

CVB: So, the tyranny of the urgent.

Eugene: There you go. And if you spend all your time doing that, you’re never going to be able to think deeply about the deep issues. What has God called me to be as a leader? This book has a strong biblical orientation to it that speaks to all of those things. I start with the idea that you need to make time for deep, deep thinking and create a sacred space.

The idea of the Sabbath helps in that regard. The Sabbath shows the importance of cessation of work, the issue of relocating, and the issue of worship, of getting your mind off of yourself and your agenda and the issues you face to really find out what God’s desire is for us. So, I think that is absolutely essential and fundamental expectation.

CVB: And that absolutely separates it from your typical self-help exam, New York Times-style leadership type of book.

Eugene: Again, you can learn some things from them, but they usually don’t address those kinds of issues.

CVB: Right. And yet it seems to me that, having worked in several different organizations, large and small, that you have to discipline yourself to do what you’re talking about.

Eugene: That’s exactly right.

CVB: So how do you do that? What were some of the hard disciplines that you needed to do, or things that you needed to say no to in order to do this?

Eugene: You raised a really interesting question right there. How did I learn how to say no? Well, one thing is people have to understand that every “no” involves a “yes” and every “yes” involves a “no.” When I’m saying “no” to things, I need to focus on what I’m saying “yes” to. When I’m saying “yes” to things, what are the things that I’m saying “no” to? A yes-or-no decision is not benign. It has consequences.

My wife’s uncle will be 105 on his next birthday, and so we asked him at his hundredth birthday, “Uncle Angelo, what’s the secret to your longevity?” And I’m thinking he’s going to say, you got to eat right and do all of this stuff. He said, “You’re asking the wrong question. The right question you need to be asking me is why bother?” If it doesn’t matter, you know why do the discipline?

I think that is the fundamental question leaders have to wrestle with at the beginning. Why bother with deep, deep thinking? Why bother with sacred space? Why bother with the disciplines of a quiet time, getting up early in the morning to exercise, counting your steps, or recording what you eat? We all struggle with those issues. They’re not easy. But that’s the fundamental question. Why bother and what do you want in your leadership?

Order your copy of The Softer Side of Leadership