With rising geopolitical concerns, record unemployment and technology advancing faster than ever, it has never been more crucial for working professionals to stay ahead of the curve.

As a futurist who has helped more than 1,000 organizations adapt to change and uncertainty, I've found that, while hard skills remain important, there are five forward-thinking — and often ignored — soft skills that are crucial for staying relevant and equipped for a rapidly changing workforce.

Here are the skills to master before 2021, along with free online courses that can help you build upon them:

1. Futuristic thinking

Futurist thinking is the ability to predict events and trends, and how they might impact your industry and professional development.

While this is a skill that remarkably few people have developed, it's important to note that futuristic thinking doesn't require a Ph.D. At the very least, it's about staying abreast of potential changes and thinking outside the box.

Recommended free course: Ready, Set, Future! Introduction to Futures Thinking,
Highlights: Build your understanding of what futurist thinking is, how to collect and analyze signals of change, and identify historical shifts in the past to predict new changes in the future.

(Another course I highly recommend is The Future After Covid, which has received great reviews. Please note that it does charge a $495 fee.)

2. Courageous leadership

Even if you're not in a managerial role, developing leadership skills has never been more important. In fact, studies show that those with such skills are more likely to get a raise, promoted, or selected to take on additional responsibilities.

It's important to note that leadership isn't just about managing a team. It's also about having the courage to do things like:

  • Push past your comfort zone to take on new roles that will expand your experience.
  • Be honest; tell people what they should hear, not what they want to hear.
  • Take action when it's needed and cut losses when they need to be cut.

Recommended free course: What Great Leaders Do
Cost: Free
Highlights: In this lecture that parallels his book, "Good Boss, Bad Boss," Stanford professor Bob Sutton unpacks the best habits of beloved and effective managers, and details the worst practices of those who fail to lead.

 3. Emotional intelligence

With the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the ability to recognize, understand and manage not just your own emotions, but also those of others, has become one of the top skills employers look for.

Strong emotional intelligence skills allow us to understand and interact with our feelings in a way that helps us build quality relationships and make decisions effectively.

Recommended free course: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
Highlights: Taking a single online course won't make you an EQ whiz overnight; it takes patience, practice and commitment. But this introductory program, which explores the components of emotional intelligence and how it can be applied at work, is a great place to start.

4. Interpersonal communication

In a world where communication is mostly taking place on digital platforms such as Slack or Zoom, knowing how to speak clearly and interact with others is key to maintaining interpersonal relationships, successful problem-solving and managing conversations.

Keep in mind that this skill isn't just about what you say or type to one another, but it's also about active listening and being attuned to feelings.

Recommended free course: Improving Communication Skills
Highlights: Taught by award-winning Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, you'll build on key communication skills such as how to develop trust, be persuasive, ask thoughtful questions, engage in active listening, and choose the right medium (e.g., videoconferences, phone calls, or emails) for your messages.

5. Cognitive flexibility

According to a report from the World Economic Forum that looked at the future of jobs across nine different industries in 15 of the world's largest economies, employers will soon be placing more emphasis on cognitive abilities like creativity and adaptability.

Those with cognitive flexibility skills are energized by change and adapt quickly and readily to the unknown. They enjoy experimenting with new things and are able to consider multiple concepts simultaneously.

Recommended free course: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science
Highlights: Knowledge cannot be fully digested if the information is presented out of context. The exercises in this course will not only teach you how to understand complex concepts, but also how to apply them in different settings.

Scott Steinberg is a futurist, keynote speaker on business trends, and bestselling author of "Fast >> Forward," "Think Like a Futurist," "Make Change Work for You" and "Becoming Essential." He is also an award-winning strategic consultant and has been named by Fortune magazine as a leading expert on innovation.

Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Future After Covid course charges a $495 fee.

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