If you’ve ever tried to get your head around all of the different leadership theories and studies made available over the last several decades, one very reasonable takeaway is this: Being a good leader is really, really, really hard.

It’s hard because you need to be good (or at least decent) in so many unrelated areas. Take a quick glance just some of the different ways you can be ineffective in the role:

  • Insensitivity.
  • Inability to network.
  • Lack of assertiveness.
  • Discomfort giving critical feedback.
  • Micromanaging.
  • Over-controlling information.
  • Inability to empathize with other’s struggles.
  • Lack of receptivity to differences of opinion.
  • Rigid thinking.
  • Inability to express their passion for a goal.
  • Unwillingness to make unpopular decisions.
  • Discomfort praising others.
  • Lashing out when stressed.
  • Reluctance to take risks.
  • Unwillingness to admit mistakes.
  • Neglecting the need for detailed analysis.
  • Lack of urgency.
  • Contagious cynicism.

Take any of the above issues. There’s a very good chance you’ve personally witnessed a leader who was hindered by it. For instance, you’ve most likely worked around a leader who lashed out when they were stressed and consequently kept people from speaking their minds. Or, you’ve probably had experience with a leader who didn’t have a sense of urgency, leaving projects to languish. None of these problems is rare. And this isn’t even close to a complete list.

How Soft Skills Training Can Help

So, what can you do to develop good, effective leaders in your organization? Soft skills training can help. And it’s important to start early in an individual’s career.

In his 1999 book “First, Break all the Rules,” Marcus Buckingham re-popularized the wisdom that great managers help their direct reports focus on their strengths rather than trying to fix their weaknesses. When it comes to leadership, however, there are a whole list of traits that can’t be offloaded onto someone else. Leaders can’t outsource empathy, objectivity, receptivity, assertiveness, risk-management, forward-thinking, analytical thinking, results-orientation, humility, outreach, composure or encouragement. And yet, the odds of all these qualities (and more) naturally existing in the same person is quite small.

To make things even more complicated, we all struggle with different things. If we all had the same issues, organizations would have long ago solved them through learning and development (L&D) efforts. Instead, there are dozens and dozens of different stumbling blocks that can impede a leader and drag down the groups they oversee. We have billions of neurons and trillions of synapses packed into our tiny brains. The various ways those neurons and synapses can be configured is incalculable, and the permutations are infinite. Leaders are people, and people are messy and wildly diverse.

But this challenge isn’t unmanageable, especially if we’re mindful of future leaders’ idiosyncratic development needs early in their career. The best source of that information is an astute manager, who is the person most likely to be aware of what characteristics might hold them back when they take on positions of greater responsibility. The problem, of course, is that not all managers are astute when it comes to matters of emotional intelligence (EQ).

That’s why it’s so useful to have a common language about what good leadership looks like. This allows for explicit but low-stakes discussions about why different aspects of leadership are so crucial.

It’s also important to normalize the need for growth. In those conversations with employees, every manager should be able to own their personal developmental areas. “I’ve been working on X and Y for years, because I saw the effect it was having on my team. You’re wired differently than me, though. Those come naturally to you. I get the sense you could really work on Z.”

Personality assessments can also be a great tool for helping young leaders identify their unique soft-skill challenges. When used well, such tools normalize the fact that no matter who you are, there will be some important aspects of emotional intelligence that don’t come as easily to you. And these discoveries can be particularly profound if they are made in a social setting — like a classroom — that helps you realize you’re not alone in this struggle.

These types of human skills (such as active listening, emotional regulation, persuasion or boundary setting) are pretty hard-wired by the time we reach adulthood, and we resist changing them. So they can take years to develop.

Years ago, Wiley ran a pilot program where learners took a personality assessment to identify their strengths and challenges across a range of soft skills. Then, learners were offered courses that covered those various skills. When we asked learners which skills they were most interested in developing, the majority said their challenges and, after the pilot, indicated spending the majority of their time focused on those challenges. Interestingly, contrary to their perceptions, the data revealed that the learners actually spent the majority of their time focused on their strengths, not their challenges. Why?

The areas that are strengths for us are that way for a reason; they reflect how we naturally see the world. Someone who is good at encouraging and praising others is wired to empathize with people and feel their triumphs and sorrows, while someone who is really good at driving a team toward results is likely to have an achievement-oriented lens when looking at their life.

So, when we are helping people shore up soft skill deficits, we are often fighting against the current. Young leaders need repeated examples showing why a particular behavior is important before they truly internalize it and assimilate it into their worldview.

The earlier we can help them concretely identify their problematic tendencies, the more chances they’ll have to organize the formal and informal feedback they are receiving through this new lens. And as they start to become not just intellectually but emotionally aware of how important those soft skills are, they commit to actually shifting their behavior. For this shift to stick requires both time and practice in a supportive environment, as emotional patterns that influence our comfort can only change through consistent and positive experiences.

By giving workers guidance earlier in their career, we can drastically improve the chances that they will have the emotional agility to balance the many, many hats that great leaders need to wear when they are eventually promoted into positions of formal leadership. And that’s where they will have an even greater ability to do good.