Soft Leadership and Women Leadership

By M.S. Rao

The article introduces the concept of “soft leadership” and illustrates what differentiates soft leadership from hard leadership, and explores how to acquire six characteristics – character, conscience, courage, compassion, commitment, and contribution to excel as successful women leaders and CEOs based on the practice of soft leadership. 

“Our emerging workforce is not interested in command and control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so, they want to do things because they want to do them.” – Irene Rosenfield 

Soft leadership is a new leadership perspective that is closely connected with women leadership. Hence, we will discuss soft leadership and its relevance to women leadership. Women leadership can be defined as the process of women leading from the front with an example by managing the emotions, egos, and feelings of all people especially men by breaking the glass ceiling to accomplish organisational goals and objectives.

What is Soft Leadership? 

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi 

There are 11 Cs that constitute soft leadership – character, charisma, conscience, conviction, courage, communication, compassion, commitment, consistency, consideration, and contribution. Here are the inspiring examples connected with each C. Mahatma Gandhi is associated with character, Mikhail Gorbachev with charisma, Martin Luther King Jr. with conscience, Aung San Sui Kyi with convictions, Alexander the Great with courage, Winston Churchill with communication, Mother Teresa with compassion, Nelson Mandela with commitment, John Wesley with consistency, Dalai Lama with consideration, and Booker T. Washington with contribution. It is highly challenging for people to cultivate these 11 characteristics. However, if people possess more than six traits they get into the fold of soft leadership. 

The author requested Dave Ulrich, father of modern HR who is his good friend, to create leadership code and the latter consented and mapped 11 Cs onto leadership code thus giving sanctity to soft leadership. 

Soft leadership is a people-oriented leadership without compromising the task-orientation. It is to accomplish goals and objectives through persuasion, not through pressure. It is to lead with soft skills and people skills. It blends soft skills, hard skills, and leadership. It emphasises the significance of precious Human Resources. It helps in managing the emotions, egos, and feelings of the people successfully. It focuses on the personality, attitude, and behaviour of the people, and calls for making others feel important. It is an integrative, participative, relationship, and behavioral leadership model adopting tools such as persuasion, negotiation, recognition, appreciation, motivation, and collaboration to accomplish the tasks effectively. Succinctly, soft leadership can be defined as the process of setting goals; influencing people through persuasion; building strong teams; negotiating them with a win-win attitude; respecting their failures; handholding them; motivating them constantly; aligning their energies and efforts; recognising and appreciating their contribution in accomplishing organisational goals and objectives with an emphasis on soft skills. It is based on the right mindset, skill set, and toolset. Here is the diagram (Figure 1) connecting 11 Cs that collectively constitutes soft leadership.  

Since the world is changing fast, this leadership perspective is very much essential. With the entry of millennials who are smart and ambitious, this leadership perspective is more essential than ever before. Additionally, this leadership style is the need of the hour with the advent of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Fourth Industrial Revolution.  



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Soft Leadership and Other Leadership Styles

The main objective of servant leadership is to have a servant attitude and heart to serve the people. However, soft leadership deals with the manner in which leaders lead others to accomplish their goals and objectives.

Soft leadership is different from other leadership styles especially servant leadership and transformational leadership. Robert Greenleaf coined servant leadership which contains 10 characteristics – listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community; while soft leadership contains 11 characteristics – character, charisma, conscience, conviction, courage, communication, compassion, commitment, consistency, consideration, and contribution. Hence, both are different. The main objective of servant leadership is to have a servant attitude and heart to serve the people. However, soft leadership deals with the manner in which leaders lead others to accomplish their goals and objectives. 

Soft leadership is different from transformational leadership because transformational leadership emphasises 4 Is. The main objective of transformational leadership is to transform individuals and institutions. Soft leadership comprises of 11 Cs while transformational leadership presented by Bass and Avolio comprises of four Is: (a) inspirational motivation, (b) idealised influence, (c) individualised consideration, and (d) intellectual stimulation. Transformational leaders lead followers to levels of higher morals. Soft leadership involves handling the people with soft skills and people skills to get the tasks executed effectively while transformational leadership involves in transforming the individuals and institutions with the help of 4 Is. Additionally, according to Burns, the transformational leadership explains that both the leader and the follower lift each other to higher levels of morality and motivation.



Dave Ulrich’s Interpretation of 11Cs

Dave Ulrich, the Partner of The RBL Group, has interpreted 11Cs by mapping onto leadership code as follows:

Strategists: Strategists answer the question, “where are we going?” and make sure that those around them understand the direction as well. They do not only envision, but also can create a future. They figure out where the organisation needs to go to succeed, they test these ideas pragmatically against current resources (money, people, organisational capabilities), and they work with others to figure out how to get from the present to the desired future. Strategists have a point of view about the future and are able to position their organisation to create and respond to that future.  

Executors: The Executor dimension of the leadership code focuses on the question, “how will we make sure we get to where we are going?” Executors translate strategy into action, make change happen, assign accountability, know which key decisions to take and which to delegate, and make sure that teams work well together. They keep promises to multiple stakeholders. The rules for executors revolve around disciplines for getting things done and the technical expertise to get the right things done right.

Talent Managers: Leaders who optimise talent today answer the question, “who goes with us on our business journey?” Talent managers know how to identify, build, and engage talent to get results now. Talent managers identify what skills are required, draw talent to their organisations, engage them, communicate extensively, and ensure that employees turn in their best efforts. Talent managers generate intense personal, professional, and organisational loyalty.  The rules for talent managers centre around resolutions that help people develop themselves for the good of the organisation.    

Human Capital Developers: Leaders who are human capital developers answer the question, “who stays and sustains the organisation for the next generation?” Talent Managers ensure shorter-

term results through people while human capital developers ensure that the organisation has the longer-term competencies required for future strategic success. Just as good parents invest in helping their children succeed, human capital developers help future leaders be successful.  Human capital developers throughout the organisation build a workforce plan focused on future talent, understand how to develop the future talent, and help employees see their future careers within the company. Human capital developers ensure that the organisation will outlive any single individual. Human capital developers install rules that demonstrate a pledge to building the next generation of talent.

Leaders are learners: from success, failure, assignments, books, classes, people, and life itself. Passionate about their beliefs and interests, they expend an enormous personal energy and attention on whatever matters to them.

But what was found at the heart of great leadership was what we called personal proficiency. Effective leaders cannot be reduced to what they know and do. Who they are as human beings has everything to do with how much they can accomplish with and through other people. Leaders are learners: from success, failure, assignments, books, classes, people, and life itself. Passionate about their beliefs and interests, they expend an enormous personal energy and attention on whatever matters to them. Effective leaders inspire loyalty and goodwill in others because they themselves act with integrity and trust. Decisive and impassioned, they are capable of bold and courageous moves. Confident in their ability to deal with situations as they arise, they can tolerate ambiguity. 

According to Dave Ulrich, all the 11Cs map onto the personal proficiency dimension. He further adds, “By summarising psychological literature around personality, attitude, perceptions, and emotional intelligence, Professor M.S.Rao lays out the conceptual underpinnings of leaders who demonstrate personal proficiency, or soft leadership.”


Soft Leadership versus Hard Leadership 

Hard leadership emphasises more on tasks and less on people while the soft leadership emphasises more on people to get the tasks executed. Political leaders including George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mikhail Gorbachev, Angela Merkel, and Aung San Sui Kyi fall in the category of soft leadership while Harry Truman, Joseph McCarthy, Charles de Gaulle, Lee Kwan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher fall in the category of hard leadership. Corporate leaders like Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric, and Timothy Cook of Apple Computers fall in the bracket of soft leadership while Jack Welch and Steve Jobs fall in the category of hard leadership.


Soft Leadership and Women Leadership

“The strongest natures, when they are influenced, submit the most unreservedly; it is perhaps a sign of their strength.” – Virginia Woolf

To excel as successful soft leaders, it is ideal to acquire 11Cs – character, charisma, conscience, conviction, courage, communication, compassion, commitment, consistency, consideration, and contribution. However, to excel as successful women leaders, it is essential to acquire six characteristics – character, conscience, courage, compassion, commitment, and contribution. 


Women Leadership – Six Characteristics

Character: Warren Bennis says, “Successful leadership is not about being tough or soft, sensitive or assertive, but about a set of attributes. First and foremost is character.” The collapse of companies like Enron, Lehman Brothers, and World Com reminds the world about the leaders lacking character at their core. People sometimes blame the business schools for producing such leaders without any ethical and moral values. However, we cannot blame business schools for all the ills that happened at the business houses globally. The problem lies with the leaders who lack strong character resulting in such downfalls.   

Character is one of the key components of soft leaders. It is through their strong character they lead their people by influencing and guiding them. People look at leaders who have an impeccable integrity and who walk the talk. Hence, most companies emphasise character during leadership development programs. For instance, companies like Hindustan Lever emphasises character wherein an individual puts his company’s needs before his own. It has a strong human resource management system and emphasises strong ethical system and character among its employees. 

As a leader you are always under the scanner. You need to set a right example through impeccable character in order to grow as a leader. People have the tendency to look at the weaknesses rather than strengths of others. Hence, it is essential to demonstrate strong character to lead from the front to influence people around you. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Character is the key thing that differentiates between good leaders from others. In fact, good character makes a person a great leader.  What counts at the end of the day or your life is who you are, not what you have.

Conscience: Sophocles said, “There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.” Conscience is one of the major key components of soft leaders as clear conscience makes them stand out from other leaders. People expect leaders to be ethical and responsible. They also look up to leaders whose conscience cares for them. Conscience differentiates right from the wrong. Leaders must have clear conscience to convince themselves to enable them to persuade others. If there is a chasm between the word and the deed, conscience reminds the same. Mahatma Gandhi was always clear with his conscience. He unveiled the mistakes he had made in his life in his autobiography. Every person makes mistakes but how many unveil and admit the same. In fact, it requires a lot of courage to reveal wrongdoings on their part. 

Several leaders resigned because of their conscience. They left their high positions due to the call from their conscience. Hence, conscience is powerful.  Leaders must convince their conscience first to convince others. Aung San Suu Kyi underwent several trials and tribulations from military rulers during the house arrest as her conscience did not allow her to leave country. Mahatma Gandhi led the Civil Disobedience movement that was a non-violent protest against British. It was an act of conscience. 

Dr. Martin Luther King aptly said, “Justice is a temporary thing that must at last come to an end; but the conscience is eternal and will never die.” Several problems and evils in the society are the result of people compromising with their conscience. People may cheat others, but not their conscience. Conscience is always clear, and it is powerful. People must be accountable to their conscience.  People may do several wrong things for their survival or their selfish motives. Ultimately, they need to persuade their conscience that is always clear. It is a reminder for every human being. Hence, don’t compromise with your conscience as compromising with conscience is equal to the death of a person morally. 

Courage: Courage is an integral part of soft leadership. According to Aristotle, courage is the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible. Courage does not mean fighting physically with others. Courage doesn’t mean killing people ruthlessly. Courage doesn’t mean being aggressive all times.Mark Twain rightly remarked, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Courage is about standing by your values and morals and principles and policies despite being pressurised by others and receiving threats from others. People often believe that courage as a characteristic is confined to military personnel alone. That is not true. Courage is essential for everyone. Courage is also a major key component for soft leaders because courage commands confidence from their followers. 

People always want leaders with backbone. David versus Goliath is an amazing example where tiny David took on the mighty Goliath successfully. A few leaders proved globally that it is not the size but the strength counts. When we take the example of Yugoslavian leader, Marshal Tito, he broke the back of Soviet empire. President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came together to bring down the crumbling walls of the Soviet Union, giving hundreds of millions of people the chance to enjoy freedom. The leader like Lee Kuan Yew brought Singapore from nowhere to a prosperous country despite scarcity in natural resources. All these leaders made a difference to this world through their courageous leadership. What counts at the end of life is neither the muscle power nor the money power but your willpower.   

Compassion: When we look at soft leaders like Lord Jesus and Buddha, we find them being filled with compassion. They changed the face of the world with their compassion. The soft leader like Mother Teresa helped lepers and poor through her selfless service. She made an immense difference in the lives of poor and downtrodden in India. In fact, compassion is an integral characteristic of soft leadership. It helps connect with others easily. People appreciate the leaders who care for them.  

Compassion means caring for others by ignoring your own interests. Compassion is not weakness. Kahlil Gibran says, “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution.”  Compassion is all about genuinely caring for your people. It is handholding them without expecting any returns. Compassion commands great inner strength, courage, and power. Compassion is a key to ministering to people. Compassion makes a huge difference in making leaders as soft leaders. Soft leadership flows from the fountain of compassion.  

The real leaders are the ones who encourage others, care for others, empathise and demonstrate compassion with others. Only such leaders have the ability to influence and maximise the potential of their people and organisations. 

Commitment: Soft leaders have another great characteristic of commitment as it makes them command respect among others. It is their firm commitment toward their causes that wins acclaim from others. If you want your life to be successful, you must be committed. For instance, when you love your family, you must demonstrate your firm commitment. Commitment consumes your time, but it builds longevity in relations. As a leader, if you demonstrate your commitment, people trust you and treat you with utmost respect.  It is rightly said; people don’t care how big you are, they only care how committed you are. We find several families breaking due to lack of commitment.  We also find teams getting crashed at the workplace due to dearth of commitment. Commitment is the bridge between the word and the deed. A firm commitment towards your word and work makes you as a successful leader.  

Contribution: Stephan Girard said, “If I thought I was going to die tomorrow, I should nevertheless plant a tree today.” We are what we are here today because of the amazing contributions made by several soft leaders to this mankind regardless of their areas of interest.  Contribution includes precious time, money, energy, ideas, knowledge, and assistance to the society. Genuine and selfless contribution takes to true leadership. People respect the leaders who contribute their best to society without hankering for wealth, power, or prestige. 

Mother Teresa once remarked, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” While contributing to others it can be in small portions. People often think that the contribution must be in a big way.  In fact, a small effort is better than no effort. A huge amount of small contributions makes up to a large amount of differences for society. It is rightly said, “All the whining and complaining in the world is not going to make a difference to the world. It will only drain you of your precious energy from doing things that do make a difference.” Hence, contribute your best little by little consistently, and you would be amazed at the differences that you make to the society over a period of time. 

To conclude, acquire six characteristics –character, conscience, courage, compassion, commitment, and contribution to excel as a successful woman leader and CEO.  

Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book tentatively titled, “Strategies to Build Women Leaders Globally: Think Managers, Think Men; Think Leaders, Think Women.” 


About the Author

Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D. is the father of “Soft Leadership” and founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India. He is an International Leadership Guru with 38 years of experience and the author of over 45 books including the award-winning ‘21 Success Sutras for CEOs’.1 Most of his work is available free of charge on his four blogs including He is also a dynamic, energetic, and inspirational leadership speaker. 

1. 21 – Success – Sutras – Ceos – Rao / d p / 162865290X
2. – Make – others  – important / dp / 8175156538
3. /Soft – Skills – Overcome – Workplace – Challenges / dp / 1628653035
4. http : / / www . emeraldinsight . com / journals . htm ? articleid = 17087126
5. http :// i/10.1002/ltl.20019/abstract
6. http: / / www.ila – / Webinars / Archive / Rao082012 . html 


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