Soft Skill: Leadership Skills

Effective leadership is about having vision, guiding others, and getting things done. Here’s how to demonstrate this as a graduate jobseeker.
Jevitha Muthusamy
Editorial Writer
Soft Skill: Leadership

Within a work setting, employers typically distinguish between leadership and management traits. In theory, leaders define the scope of what can be achieved, provide vision and goals, build teams, and inspire their team members to bring their best selves to the table. Managers, on the other hand, focus on getting things done – defining tasks that need to be completed, setting required processes and timeframes, monitoring team performance, and clearing roadblocks along the way. 

In practice, employers typically seek a combination of both the above traits in graduate hires. This is often referred to broadly as “leadership skills”, and is especially sought-after in candidates for rotational graduate schemes or management trainee programmes.  

Leadership skills encompass a diverse range of qualities and capabilities, from effective communication to problem-solving, adaptability, empathy, and decision-making. Employers in Malaysia hold these skills in high regard, recognizing that they can transform an individual into a valuable asset who not only excels in their role but also inspires and guides others towards shared goals.

What are Leadership Skills?

When employers talk about leadership skills in graduate roles, they are referring to how a variety of skills and qualities can come together to ensure that an objective is achieved  ̶  whether that objective is accomplishing a task or building a cohesive team. Some of these skills and qualities include:

  • Ambition: Wanting to achieve more for yourself, your team, and your employer
  • Decisiveness: Being able to make decisions even in the face of ambiguity
  • Problem-solving skills: Analysing situations, thinking critically, and finding innovative solutions
  • Communication: Not just talking, but actively listening to others and conveying your ideas clearly
  • Teamwork: Coordinating tasks within a team while building relationships with them
  • Planning and Organisation: Able to delegate tasks, set timeframes, and keep everything on schedule
  • Persuasion skills: The ability to inspire confidence in others and secure their buy-in to your ideas
  • Emotional Intelligence: Knowing how to get the best out of people while still giving constructive feedback
  • Adaptability: Being open to changing strategies, learning new skills, and staying mobile alongside your team
  • Commercial Awareness: Knowing how to allocate resources effectively while considering the commercial impact of those decisions on the business

Employers won’t be expecting you to have all these traits fully-developed, but what they will be looking out for is whether you can demonstrate enough of these to prove that you have the potential to be groomed to develop them further.  

How to Develop Leadership Skills

Developing leadership skills is an ongoing process that involves self-awareness and conscious effort. Here are some ways you can cultivate leadership abilities and put them into practice:

  • Self-Assessment

Self-assessment is the foundation for growth as a leader. It helps you identify your strengths and areas for improvement. Understanding your own capabilities and limitations allows you to set development goals for yourself while also learning how best you can work with or support others.

Use professional self-assessment tools with trained interpretation from counsellors like those at your university careers services. Seek feedback from peers, mentors, and supervisors to gain a well-rounded perspective on your current level of leadership abilities. 

  • Step Up to Responsibilities

The best way to develop leadership skills is by putting yourself in positions of responsibility while in university. Join organising committees in your student society, be part of student council, or take the lead in group projects during your course. 

The same applies during your internships or part-time work experiences. Actively seek out positions with more responsibilities. Do your best to encourage your fellow interns/co-workers and build relationships with them. Learn to work alongside others in pursuit of getting things done. 

You don’t necessarily need to be the overall leader. For example, if you start off writing for your campus magazine and then progress to a sub-editor role, you can still exercise leadership skills there. Even if you don’t have a formal leadership role, you can still exercise leadership skills as a regular team member in aid of making sure things get done and everyone gets along with each other. 

  • ​Mentorship

Learning from experienced leaders can provide invaluable insights and guidance. They have navigated the challenges and opportunities of leadership roles, and their mentorship can accelerate your development.

Identify professionals or personal contacts who have a track record of effective leadership and approach them for mentorship. Engage in regular discussions to learn from their experiences, seek advice on leadership challenges, and ask about successful leadership strategies.

  • Skills Development Courses

Look out for leadership development programmes, workshops, or courses offered either by your university or other reputable institutions. Attending these sessions can give you additional exposure to leadership concepts and the skills required to realise them.

  • Volunteer Opportunities

Seek out opportunities that let you help, coach, or connect with people. This could be with charities and non-profit groups, community projects, or peer-to-peer coaching programmes at your university. Good leaders must know to inspire and guide others, even in cases where your audience may not have much personal stake or feel particularly motivated to action.

Any position that lets you supervise or coach kids (e.g. working as a volunteer teacher, scout master, etc.) is especially trial by fire for leadership roles in a corporate setting! Managing and supervising a room full of kids is often far harder than working a boardroom, and much of the same skills apply in both cases.     

How to Demonstrate Leadership Skills to Employers

Different employers will assess leadership skills in different ways. For instance, if you are applying for a management trainee programme, recruiters may test your ability to immediately step into management responsibilities (after some guidance and mentoring). However, an employer with a designated leadership development programme might be looking out more for your ability to build relationships with others than to plan and organise tasks.   

Regardless of employers’ criteria, here are some strategies to help you demonstrate your leadership qualities during the application process:

  • CVs, Cover Letters, and Application Forms

In your CV, emphasise any leadership roles you've held and describe your contributions and the impact you made. Use specific, quantifiable examples to showcase your leadership effectiveness where possible. 

When writing cover letters and answering questions in application forms, you can share anecdotes  that illustrate how your leadership affected a group of people and resulted in a positive outcome. Use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) method. Describe a challenging situation you encountered, the task or problem you needed to address, the actions you took as a leader, and the results that came from your leadership.

  • Job Interviews

Employers will typically attempt to assess your leadership skills in job interviews by asking questions related to competencies or specific job scenarios. This could be as direct as “Tell us about a time when you demonstrated leadership” to questions like “How ambitious would you say you are?” or “What would you do if you were a manager of a team and someone was underperforming?”

When discussing leadership examples during interviews, make sure to distinguish your own contributions from those of the rest of your team. Acknowledge your team’s efforts while specifying how your decisions and actions fit into the dynamic and influenced the outcome.  

  • Assessment Centres and Role-Playing Exercises

Recruiters will be observing you for leadership traits during group case study exercises. Or you may be asked to take part in a job-specific role-play such as being in a manager’s shoes for day or mediating a falling out between two colleagues.

In both cases, remember that leadership is not just about telling people what to do without listening to them. A good leader always considers other’s viewpoints before making a decision. Make sure everyone has the chance to give opinions or say their piece before you decide on a course of action.

Don’t try to immediately take over during a group exercise  ̶  you’ll just seem arrogant and pushy. Instead, try to be consultative and subtly direct the group’s discussions, such as asking questions like “Does anyone have thoughts on how we can tackle this problem?” or “Should I volunteer as timekeeper to keep our work on track?”

If someone does try to take over in a group exercise, challenge this in a calm and non-aggressive way (e.g. By suggesting that not everyone has given their input yet). Likewise, if you spot someone who is overly quiet or anxious, do your best to help them calm down or encourage them to talk through their thoughts.