Interpersonal Skills for Leadership

In order to feel good about a person, people have to feel good with that person. Leaders encourage others to enjoy interacting with them. They smile, laugh with those around them, and interact positively with people, even when disagreeing with what they say.

To accomplish these attitudes and behaviors, leaders develop interpersonal skills on a foundation of assertiveness. Assertiveness refers to the relaxed confidence one displays in discussions or productive conflicts. On the one hand, people see a passive person as being more interested in getting along than in getting to an optimal solution. On the other, they see an aggressive person as more interested in being right or dominant than in collaboratively discovering the truth or best option. But people trust an assertive person. They appreciate when someone at the table values their perspectives and evaluates fairly, openly, and appreciatively.

Sure, particularly after years of practice, stress-management skills help leaders maintain an assertive disposition in potentially frustrating situations, but too many people blindly reduce assertiveness to stress management. Yes, stress management correlates with assertiveness, but no, stress management does not cause it. In fact, more often than not, the reverse is true. Certain strategies and techniques for assertive behaviors can improve situational stress management.

For instance, prospective leaders can connect their positions with the needs of others. By speaking on behalf of others’ needs instead of their own, they can muster greater resolve to reach the best option. This strategy also prevents a counterpart from dismissing their position as being selfish. And both facets of this strategy reduce situational stress.

Additionally, by mentally reframing a meeting or negotiation into a collaboration, prospective leaders can shift from a hierarchical or adversarial mindset to a flat organizational structure with common goals. This strategy enables people to speak more comfortably—free from competition, unwarranted power struggles, and of course, needless stress. Instead of a meeting or negotiation with VIP’s, the conversation becomes a brainstorming session between two or more peers. Then the prospective leader can solicit buy-in by ensuring everyone has a voice, role, and stake, simply by appreciating differences and emphasizing commonalities in pursuit of co-authorship.

Sounds great—but how do we do that?

To reframe an event, prospective leaders can socialize prior to discussion or negotiation, thereby mentally separating ideas from people or judgments from identities. Simply put, we have to recognize people for who they are—as human beings, not positions of authority or antagonism—before we can separate them from what we or they are trying to accomplish. That mental separation between the people at the table and the ideas or goals at stake allows people to assert, “I disagree,” without thinking negatively of the person who articulated the idea or quivering under the fear of judgment.

Note that this strategy also helps others at the table disentangle prospective leaders from their ideas. In other words, socializing works both as a method for achieving assertiveness and as a means for promoting it.

As another strategy for assertiveness, prospective leaders can actively broaden their perspectives in preparation to accept alternatives. This strategy requires they dedicate considerable effort to knowing the principles and goals behind their requests. Rarely do any of us want specifically what we ask for. Far more likely, we want what we presume our requests can achieve. Do we want the pay raise, or do we want the value of that raise, in time or purchasing power or even status—as we alternatively might achieve through more professional-development travel or vacation days, perks like a company car or first-class upgrades, or a new title? Such knowledge enables us to relinquish rigid demands and collaboratively explore alternatives with the people at the table.

When entertaining alternatives, great leaders discuss facts and opinions from multiple points of view, including their counterparts’, to model and encourage objective thinking. Rather than argue a side, they generate scenarios, openly explore other people’s suggestions by focusing on how to before why not, and whenever possible, refer to objective measures for their evaluations. In addition to displaying and encouraging objective thinking, a prospective leader who adopts this strategy exhibits openness and adaptability, two leadership dispositions people appreciate, particularly amidst social calls for transparency and within a tumultuous economy.

Great leaders also go out of their way to truly understand what others need and want. Instead of arguing points of disagreement, they actively listen for statements they can support. Many use questions and conversational cues like smiling or nodding to keep a counterpart talking about topics they can support. When a counterpart steers the conversation in unproductive or, worse, disadvantageous directions, astute leaders interrupt and redirect—for instance, by saying, “You have some interesting ideas. But I want to better understand this other idea you mentioned.” Then, at the end of the meeting or in follow-up email, if not periodically during the meeting, they can summarize those points of agreement in order to ensure everyone is on the same page and to remind everyone of what that same page is. Simply practicing these listening skills and behaviors can build a person’s reputation for working well with others and seeking consensus.

Far more important than steering the conversation, great leaders go out of their way to identify the principles and goals behind a counterpart’s requests or demands. That knowledge enables them to say “no” to the demand—but “yes” to satisfying the principles or goals in some other capacity. When leaders truly comprehend a counterpart’s values, needs, concerns, and goals, they can significantly impact if not direct the terms of agreement—especially if they frame the options in value-laden language the counterpart can appreciate.

Comprehending everyone’s principles and goals can empower a person not only to cultivate buy-in while promoting objective exploration of alternatives, but also to say “no” to a specific request without undermining the collaboration. However, some people have trouble determining those motives or discerning where or how to draw the line on entertaining demands. As a stop gap, many leaders adopt the “no, but, if” technique. This simple tactic involves firmly saying “no” to the request or demand, followed by “but,” with a condition that enables a reasonable alternative: “No, my department can’t pay for food, but if your department can cover the catering, I can do all the planning, coordinating, and facilitating.” This method helps a prospective leader assert boundaries without threatening the collaboration or relationship.

But understanding everyone’s principles and goals will take a prospective leader much farther. To assist with this process, prospective leaders can borrow from Neil Rackham’s unfortunately-named SPIN approach. SPIN thankfully does not refer to spinning other people’s words, but rather stands for Situation questions, Problem questions, Implication questions, and Need-payoff questions. Situation questions are those that help people understand who everyone at the table is—including their roles and backgrounds, skills, or resources—and the context of their meeting, with relevant data such as performance indicators or benchmarks. Prospective leaders should relegate situation questions to the pre-meeting research process as much as possible. Situation questions enable a prospective leader to comprehend at least cursorily who has the vantage points, skills, or resources to identify, evaluate, or act on relevant problems or opportunities. Moreover, key words on a stakeholder’s LinkedIn page or in a blog post might cue a prospective leader into that person’s values.

The rest of SPIN assists with collaborative exploration. Problem questions are those whose answers reveal issues that stakeholders at the table, or their associates, can address. Problem questions would help everyone speculate, for instance, what obstacles prevent a preferred venue from becoming available for high-profile fundraiser, or why department heads are unwilling to share information or otherwise accommodate each other’s needs. Next, implication questions unravel the extent to which such uncovered issues impact human or other resources, efficiency, operating costs, opportunity costs, etc. Implication questions peek people’s interests by drawing attention to the stakes. Meanwhile, need-payoff questions encourage people to explore what-if scenarios and their impact on the problem. Based on the above examples, here are a couple of need-payoff questions: “If turnaround time is the only obstacle to our using the venue, how might extra manpower affect that turnaround time, and how skilled would that labor have to be? Could we organize the extra manpower to expedite the breakdown and setup process?”; “If department heads were to develop institutional thinking, not just departmental thinking, would they still withhold information from each other that could benefit institutional goals? Can we design a retreat or a leadership-development program that fosters institutional thinking?” Rackham emphasizes the importance of not only asking such questions, but also encouraging others at the table to fully articulate the answers. Their generating both their own problems and solutions fosters their psychological investment in the process.

Rackham developed SPIN as a research-based sales technique, and in his examples, the other stakeholders are professional purchasers or others similarly involved in relationship-building, long-term, and large sales. The approach posits the salesperson in the position of facilitator and the prospective client in the role of brainstormer and problem-solver in order to build the client’s active participation. Also, because the prospective client generates the problems and solutions, the client simultaneously would construct a prepared argument for soliciting additional approvals or funding sources via conversations where the salesperson can’t be present. In other words, the method breeds buy-in, but equally importantly, it cultivates articulate champions for the cause.

All leaders depend on buy-in and champions for their causes. Rackham’s SPIN approach enables prospective leaders to bring others into the problem-solving or change process in ways that can lead to sustainable contributions.

Through online research, conversations with shared connections, or repeated meetings, a future leader can learn about motivations, values, and both explicit and implicit goals of stakeholders at the table, and then use the meeting to practice, develop, and demonstrate interpersonal skills that benefit both career and project goals.

Thus far, we have discussed interpersonal skills in terms of assertiveness. By connecting their positions with the needs of others and reframing meetings or negotiations into collaborations, prospective leaders can develop greater resolve to pursue truth or the best option, lower stress, and build a social identity of trustworthiness. By socializing prior to discussion and learning the principles and goals behind their own and others’ requests, they also can disentangle everyone’s perceptions of each other from proposed and potentially contentious ideas, transform debates into brainstorming sessions, and help everyone generate alternatives. And by asking questions that encourage everyone else at the table to articulate problems and solutions, prospective leaders can simultaneously cultivate buy-in and inspire champions for the cause.

Assertiveness provides the foundation for interpersonal skills, but there are plenty of additional interpersonal skills to develop. For instance, prospective leaders can practice attributing even the ideas they personally devise to others in the room or their constituencies, whenever possible. In a world where colleagues fight for credit and recognition, this approach seems counterintuitive, if not dangerous. However, great leaders know not only that buy-in outweighs credit, but also that their early articulation of an idea does not mean they were the first to think of it.

When senior colleagues recognize they can defer authority without forfeiting recognition, they not only desire to work more with such a trustworthy person, but also are willing to provide opportunities that increase the person’s experience and visibility. On the one hand, they merely are delegating responsibilities in order to lighten their loads. On the other, they’re consciously or unconsciously positioning that person for upward mobility. By publically aligning a person with even informal authority, senior colleagues encourage others to associate that person with authority. So long as the person acquires and demonstrates the requisite skills, everyone will view the person as a perfect fit for formal leadership.

Prospective leaders also can practice involving every stakeholder in discussions. Most great leaders recognize that relying solely on vocal contributors can cause misconceptions. First of all, many people silently process new knowledge and require someone else to actively solicit their ideas. Second of all, some people quietly nod even when they disagree. Great leaders encourage and welcome objections to broaden awareness and understanding, as well as to facilitate cathartic articulations that open discussions which can assuage fears. Agreements without clearly engaged stakeholder ownership can devolve into poorly debated ideas with insufficient follow-through.

Involving every stakeholder in a discussion is not always easy. Some people do not want to contribute. When faced with stubborn silence, prospective leaders can cater SPIN questions to those who need prodding and repeatedly ask for elaboration.

Even once articulated, others’ statements can require management. Some people contribute in inarticulate, negative, or excessively personal ways. Prospective leaders can paraphrase poorly articulated ideas to confirm understanding or rephrase negative or excessively personalized statements into positive or relatable terms.

Both prodding and rephrasing are tricky. Note that a skilled leader prods and rephrases not to interrogate, but rather to include and motivate. To avoid a persecutory countenance, prospective leaders can practice these skills with sincere smiles and a caring attitude and perhaps preface the SPIN questions with an introductory statement like, “You look like you have an idea or a concern.” After acquiring people’s ideas, prospective leaders can search for opportunities to openly recognize, praise, and incorporate those contributions in order to promote an inclusive environment and encourage buy-in.

Regardless of what happens in a meeting or an interpersonal exchange, great leaders focus on people’s strengths, never inadequacies, and compliment others’ strengths regularly, both publicly and privately. Great leaders treat all people as their people and every communication with them as special. A prospective leader who develops these skills, attitudes, and behaviors will rise quickly in any organization.


Fisher, Roger; and Shapiro, Daniel. (2005). Using Emotions as You Negotiate. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Fisher, Roger; and Ury, William. (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Rackham, Neil. (2014). SPIN Selling: Situation Problem Implication Need-Payoff. [Unabridged] [Audible Audio Edition] McGraw-Hill Education. Retrieved from

Sandberg, Sheryl. (2014). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Schonk, Katherine, Ed. Training Women to Be Leaders: Negotiation Skills for Success; Negotiation Skills Special Report 8. Boston, MA: Harvard University. Retrieved from

Wheeler, Michael. (2013). How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Fifteen Suggestions for Developing a Successful Immersion Program

What does an immersion program look like?

Currently, we’re piloting a 14-week immersion program that focuses on an inspirational theme we knew would generate interest. Participants meet for 3.5 hours each Tuesday, with an all-day trip to neighboring institutions on the first Tuesday of each month. During the first half of the semester, the participants hear from on- and off-campus leaders to learn more about the university and its peer institutions. During the second half, they will explore a team project and ultimately deliver a presentation of their findings to the president and provost. Whereas the program’s specific theme is new, and whereas some of the participant makeup is new, the program’s general format parallels many of our other immersion programs’.

Regardless of the type of program, an immersion experience can accelerate the development of people’s leadership skills. Leadership skills benefit every individual, as well as the institution or community as a whole, irrespective of the person’s official position. People with leadership skills achieve more, develop a greater sense of purpose, and improve organizational or community health.

The very structure of an immersion program fosters those skills. Like most of our others, this pilot program challenges participants’ time-management skills in order to build their capacities for new initiatives, raises their institutional awareness, and organizes sustained engagements with diverse perspectives — not only to develop participants’ critical-thinking skills and diversify their problem-solving techniques, but also to encourage institutional thinking over departmental thinking.

Projects dramatically improve immersion programs. A project can help participants not only develop their teamwork skills, but also comprehend the value of collaborating with stakeholders and cultivating champions for the cause. Whereas everyone appears to understand the importance of buy-in, few demonstrate knowledge of how to cultivate it. The early, uncertain stages of our projects include structured conversations and brainstorming sessions with stakeholders, while the participants try to better understand and accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. This investigative process elevates stakeholder awareness of unmet needs. It also invites them to help shape the end result. Both of those aspects often generate champions for the cause. Behind the scenes, the champions then raise more awareness, and particularly if they come from diverse constituencies, they broaden buy-in. Without a project and structured reflection on the process, even immersion programs would have trouble raising awareness of how to generate buy-in.

Perhaps most importantly, immersion programs foster close friendships. Close friendships can lead to sustainable networks for increased knowledge-sharing, collaborations, and potentially even resource-sharing. Connectivity creates an adaptable and resourceful institution or community, capable of responding rapidly to threats and seizing timely opportunities. In fact, friendships succeed where reporting structures and other forced networks fail. Their tangential conversations can blossom into innovations, and intimacy can increase collaborators’ personal investments. That level of friendship necessitates not only ice-breakers, a “Vegas” environment, structured peer interactions, and scheduled time for group reflection, but also topic flexibility to accommodate tangential and idle conversations.

After last week’s day trip, a participant related how much she values our bus rides. The bus rides have helped her, in her words, “really get to know” some of her colleagues. She claimed their new-found friendships already have seeded potential collaborations. Bear in mind, she and her colleagues do not merely desire to maintain their relationships. They better comprehend each others’ needs, skills, and resources, as well as how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

That comprehension improves organizational culture and effectiveness, and well-structured immersion programs can not only replicate that comprehension. Well-structured immersion programs can scale it.

Here are fifteen suggestions for developing a successful immersion program:

1. Elevate the program’s profile by creating a competitive application process.

2. Clarify time and other obligations in the call for applications.

3. Further raise the program’s profile by outsourcing the participant-selection process to a committee.

4. Coach the selection committee to choose participants based on their diverse backgrounds, experiences, access to resources, …. In other words, select to create the best program experience. Selection is part of the design.

5. Schedule the program to meet routinely for multiple hours at a time; more frequent meetings can require fewer hours for fewer weeks, but less frequent meetings demand more consecutive hours for additional months.

6. Create a relevant ice-breaker activity.

7. Incorporate a relevant team project into the experience.

8. Craft a project charge that is broad enough to encourage team ownership but specific enough to provide structure.

9. Consider reserving a day for participants to shadow relevant but diverse colleagues, community members, or professionals.

10. Invite diverse, but relevant contributors.

11. Schedule regular opportunities for reflection and discussion, away from contributors.

12. Have participants anonymously evaluate contributors in order to make program improvements.

13. Build time into the schedule for meetings with project stakeholders and for general project development.

14. Require a project presentation before an esteemed audience.

15. Additionally raise the program’s profile by utilizing that esteemed audience in a closeout ceremony.

Professional Development as Rewiring the Institution for Adaptability

Here at the Center for Teaching and Learning, we have been socially networking the university in order to create a more adaptable institution, capable of rapid changes. By bridging the silos of academic departments and colleges, we thus far have facilitated not only the development of new ideas but also actual changes to the university’s organizational chart and processes. We’re becoming a stronger institution in the face of unprecedented technological, economic, and social changes.

In the spring, we will start bridging the gap between faculty and staff, and ideally, we’ll expand this framework to better connect the university’s employees with the surrounding community — the latter’s goal being to facilitate mutual sustainability and growth — and then with other TBR institutions to diversify the available problem-solving skills and overall knowledge and other resources.

But I had missed an additional component that’s structurally necessary for this vision.

Change-leadership scholar John P. Kotter (2014) suggests an additional component in the facilitation of rapid changes. Kotter argues for a dual organizational system, which our Center already facilitates minus a key ingredient. Counterbalancing the university’s hierarchical bureaucracy, a network of passionate people in Kotter’s ideal organization explores threats or opportunities and promotes rapid changes that the hierarchy otherwise cannot address in time. Here at Austin Peay, our Center’s cohort programs network people from across the organization who feel a sense of urgency and want to be change agents. But after they help communicate the change vision, if the administration cannot merely implement the change — as it could, for instance, in the relocation of our Career Services from Academic Affairs to Student Affairs — then the change initiative gets redirected to a taskforce within the very same bureaucratic organization. In other words, the bureaucracy recaptures it and deprives it of its momentum.

The solution? A facilitated (not chaired) guiding coalition.

Like a taskforce, the guiding coalition would further research what is already being done here and at peer institutions, what has been done here and at peer institutions, costs, available resources, … but it also would have design-school-esque facilitated discussions to “[identify] and [remove] barriers which slow or stop [this] strategically important activity” (Kotter, 2014, p. 32). That last part is what a taskforce cannot achieve.

This extra component to Kotter’s dual organizational system will enable us to oversee not only idea generation, but also, at least in certain instances, implementation. For a stronger Austin Peay. For a stronger community. For a stronger higher educational system.


Kotter, John P. (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Advice for Developing Leadership Skills and Opportunities

The following four strategies and fourteen skills should help any faculty member achieve a rewarding life of leadership.

Increase your visibility. Most campuses offer plenty of opportunities for faculty to venture beyond their departments. Join the faculty senate. Request assignments that require you to meet cross-campus colleagues. Apply for inter-departmental professional-development programs. Volunteer to help with campus-wide events. Diversify friendships and stay visible.

Identify role models and learn from them. Certain people demonstrate admirable skills, behaviors, or attitudes that warrant careful study or even selective emulation. Buy them coffee. Socialize with them. Learn from them. If they’re historical figures, read about them. Never under-appreciate life’s many models for success.

Assume challenging, but not overwhelming responsibilities. Specifically, seek responsibilities that encourage you to read about and develop the following fourteen skills:

1. time-management skills: leaders organize their complex schedules to decrease strains on their working memories and increase their workflows, with scheduled times to reflect.

2. stress-management skills: leaders first and foremost apply intentional strategies to reduce the likelihood of stress on the front end, scan for early warning signs, and then have tactics ready to lower stress in the moment.

3. interpersonal skills: leaders interact positively with others, even when disagreeing with what they say.

4. listening skills: leaders go out of their way to truly understand what others need and want.

5. collaborative skills: leaders ensure everyone has a voice, role, and stake by appreciating differences and emphasizing commonalities in pursuit of co-authorship.

6. teamwork skills: leaders utilize their personal strengths to complement the strengths of others.

7. motivational skills: leaders interpret others’ motives and harness their vision by appropriating their language and values when articulating project or organizational goals.

8. conflict-management skills: leaders manage the conflicts that can yield positive changes and either mediate unproductive conflicts or coordinate more productive arrangements.

9. mentorship skills: leaders help others develop and reach their goals.

10. ceremonial speaking skills: whereas not all leaders give speeches, most routinely introduce others and say a few poignant words in public settings.

11. research skills: leaders investigate pre-existing models and other points of comparison, as well as the project’s history, context, stakeholders, and their needs and concerns.

12. project-management skills: leaders organize long-term responsibilities into clear stages, processes, benchmarks, and deadlines with equally clear communication structures and scheduled updates.

13. budget-management skills

14. fundraising skills

The first nine skills do not require a formal position to acquire or use, and they can help you access opportunities to develop the rest. They are the foundation for success.

Venture out, to bring more in. Leadership opportunities and their many intrinsic rewards extend far beyond campus. They are in your disciplinary fields and local, regional, state, national, and global communities. Moreover, off-campus connections and insights can broaden your range of problem-solving skills and resources on campus. They make you a more knowledgeable and skilled resource to the university.

The success of the students, campus, and community depends on your success. Improving yourself improves the lives connected to you. Take the time to be the best you can be — for you, for them, for everybody.