Leadership Soft Skills in the US Military—What the @#$%? DeMarco Banter

Leadership Soft Skills in the US Military—What the @#$%?  DeMarco Banter

This week marks the 5th year of teaching our Leader Development course at The USAF’s Air Command and Staff College.  To say it has been an interesting journey—would not even begin to cover it.  In 2012 the DeMarco Family took a job here at Air University in ROTC as the Southeast Region Commander—it was an amazing gig, but I became concerned over what we were teaching cadets in terms of leadership—concerned because it look a lot like what I learned in ROTC in the 1980s—it seemed things had changed, or at least I thought they had.

Reviewing the hard lessons learned in various commands—they all seemed to stem from people. Our folks had amazing technical or hard skills, but it seemed most our issues came from people—not from flying jets. I started pondering the concept of “soft skills,” but the name almost caused me to throw up a little—SOFT SKILLS for Killers? I know I am overstating that—but the mere concept of SOFT SKILLS just seemed counter to what we were trying to do.

A quick Google search brought me to another great friend—wikipedia and from there—I got a shocker.  The term soft skills came from the US Army in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  So the term soft skills did not come from some soft corporate or academic office—but from the US Military.  The term was unveiled at the US Continental Army Command (CONARC) Soft Skills Training Conference at the Air Defense School, Fort Bliss TX,  12-13 December 1972.

You can even see the report here:  SOFT SKILLS TRAINING CONFERENCE 

I guess we might need Soft Skill for Hard People (the title of Dr Helena Kim’s new book). It turns out the Army understood it excelled at training troops on how to use machines, but they noticed leadership was key in the success of any unit. In the 1960s and 70s there just wasn’t a lot of training around leading people and organizations, so the Army went about creating a method to capture how acquire said knowledge.

First:  What are “soft skills?” Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.

The Collins English Dictionary defines the term “soft skills” as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

The word “soft” is the opposite of “hard”, may appear to mean “subjective, fuzzy, and unreliable,” “but, “calling these skills soft or noncognitive belies their importance.” Because of their subjectivity, soft skills are often not assessed and yet many in leadership consulting argue that they lie at the foundation of what makes a leader and will determine if an employee will rise to a leadership position. Soft skills represent personal skills necessary for such activities as team work and motivating others.

Back to the Army— Dr Paul G Whitmore was at the center of much of the soft skills research. He refers to any skill that does not employ the use of machinery as soft. The military realized that many important activities were included within this category, and in fact, the social skills necessary to lead groups, motivate soldiers, and win wars were encompassed by skills they had not yet catalogued or fully studied. Since 1959, the U.S. Army has been investing a considerable amount of resources into technology-based development of training procedures. In 1968 the U.S. Army officially introduced a training doctrine known as “Systems Engineering of Training” covered in the document CON Reg 350-100-1.  

In 1972, thanks to an US Army training manual, the formal usage of the term “soft skills” began. At the 1972 CONARC Soft Skills Conference, Dr. Whitmore presented his reportaimed at figuring out how the term “soft skills” is understood in various CONARC schools.  After designing and processing a questionnaire, experts formulated a new tentative definition: “Soft skills are important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.”

One thing you might note in the report—the War College was AWOL (insert shocked face here)

As usual—I was mistaken—not only do soft skills have a place in the US Military—the concept and term was born in the US Military.  But that name—well, I am happy to know I am not the only one who doesn’t like it—Seth Godin has been on it since 2017 with his piece—“Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills’ They might be skills, but they’re not soft”  Maybe Seth and I can work on that together. 

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