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5 Unexpected Sources for Soft Skills Development

Soft skills - unexpected sources

In looking to build and develop the soft skills of their students, business schools and faculty have found some surprising sources from which to exemplify their usage and to generate debate. In the last of our series on the subject of these highly-prized traits – from leadership qualities to interpersonal skills - here are five particularly eye-catching examples:

1. A playwright on communication skills

The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management runs a number of MBA modules aimed at improving students’ communication skills (and interpersonal skills for that matter) through a center known as the Self-Development Lab (SDL). Here, teaching includes work on vocal performance and presence through breathing and physical exercises led by a professional playwright. The idea behind it is to help students become more confident and comfortable in the delivery of their speech – be that in a formal presentation or in their day-to-day interactions with colleagues, building these soft skills in the process.  

2. Ocean’s Eleven on interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills and Ocean's ElevenYes, we mean the US film led by George Clooney in 2001, itself a reworking of the 1960 classic starring members of the Rat Pack; Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jnr., and so on. The film depicts a gang pulling off a series of daring casino heists in Las Vegas.

Its relevance to interpersonal skills lies in the ‘Ocean's Eleven Principle’, a term coined by an MBA alumnus of Dartmouth Tuck, Alejandro Crawford, who now teaches entrepreneurship at Bard College. The principle holds that learning how to work well with those of differing backgrounds and expertise can help a team achieve what might at first appear insurmountable.

In this context, the Ocean’s Eleven films are portrayed simply as extreme (albeit criminal) examples of the kind of disparate talents you often see thrown together on team projects that take place during an MBA program and, indeed, in real life. “Learn to work with people who seem to be different creatures entirely, and it will be this that gets you past seemingly impossible obstacles,” says Crawford.

3. Reality TV on strategic thinking

Game theory, otherwise known as the science of strategy, has been central to the teaching of Berkeley-Haas professor, John Morgan, for more than a decade. However, in 2014, taking inspiration from his son, he designed classes based on popular international reality TV show, Survivor.  The essence of the show sees teams – or ‘tribes’ to use the (some believe politically incorrect) term the show tends to go with - use a system of progressive elimination to vote off other members until only one remains.

In the MBA version at Berkeley-Haas, teams compete on problems related to a real-life business challenge each week with losing teams forced into voting someone off their team in a secret ballot. Morgan aims to show the value of being ‘outward thinkers’ through these experiences and there certainly seems to be a lot of strategy behind students’ tactics, with one student saying that voting patterns don’t always follow what has previously been agreed – perhaps because they have their eye on that all-important ‘big picture’ in which a project’s ultimate success lies.

There is, of course, another aspect to this; a further recent participant in the MBA class has also stressed the importance in keeping “friends close but your enemies just as close,” which puts a Machiavellian spin on a class where interpersonal skills are also brought into the mix alongside strategic thinking when it comes to the development of students’ soft skills.

4. Classic literature on leadership qualities

The leadership lessons that can be found in works of classic literature have been highlighted by faculty of both Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford GSB. James March, now professor emeritus at Stanford GSB, believed it was tricky to apply the serious side of scholarship to the question of what constitutes good and bad leadership qualities, arguing that the pages of great works of literature could instead offer invaluable insights.

By way of example, March found much of value in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan to spark discussions of how those deemed as ‘great leaders’ throughout history have often trodden a fine line between genius and madness, while others were simply derided as heretics in their own time. Similarly, CervantesDon Quixote has been held up by the Stanford GSB professor for his commitment to a vision in the face of repeated failure (a trait also shared by entrepreneurs and psychopaths), with the rationale that Quixote “persists because he knows who he is.”

Since March’s retirement from his popular discussion classes, Joseph Badaracco, a professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School has also sought insights into leadership qualities through tomes of literature, culminating in the 2006 book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.

“Literature lets you see leaders and others from the inside. You share the sense of what they’re thinking and feeling. In real life, you’re usually at some distance and things are prepared, polished. With literature, you can see the whole messy collection of things that happen inside our heads,” Badaracco has argued.

Examples the HBS professor has been known to draw from include Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, which centers on the character of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII. Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart has also provided inspiration for the way in which a Nigerian village leader reacts to the arrival of colonialism.

5. Alexander the Great on leadership qualities

Leadership qualities and Alexander the Great An archetypal strong leader who ruled over one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, Alexander the Great has been offered up as a lesson of both good and bad leadership qualities by INSEAD’s Manfred Kets de Vries.

Praise comes for his vision and charisma, with particular reference to the way in which Alexander won people to his cause through words and speeches that resonated with those who heard them. He is also said to have been exemplary in his acknowledgment of the contributions of individuals. “He routinely singled people out for special attention and recalled acts of bravery performed by former and fallen heroes,” says Kets de Vries.

However, less suitable examples for today’s aspiring leaders lay in his failure to consolidate gains made by his empire and to offer little in the way succession planning by the time of his death. The INSEAD professor believes it’s also worth noting the pitfalls in letting success influence character: “As time passed, Alexander’s behavior became increasingly domineering and grandiose,” points out Kets de Vries.

So, whether your cultural medium of choice is performance art, television, books, film or history, there are plenty of lessons in soft skills out there and business schools are by no means afraid to draw from them in their teaching! 

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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