When to lead firmly in the era of 'soft' CEOs

In 2024, CEOs are striking a balance between two self-presentations: strong and soft. 

In the wake of the pandemic, leaders who exercise humility — actively listening and admitting what they do not know — are in high demand. When asked to select the most important CEO qualities for a Becker's survey, the majority of respondents chose honesty and openness (59%) or compassion and empathy (22%). More traditional "hard" skills lagged behind, with only 12% prioritizing financial and technical knowledge, and 7% valued charisma above all else. 

Blackstone, the world's largest private equity firm, is prioritizing similar soft skills in its executive searches, Courtney della Cava, its global head of portfolio talent and organizational performance, told Fortune

"We're realizing that success and failure hinge primarily on these skills," Ms. della Cava said. "The hard truth is, there is nothing soft about soft skills." 

Soft leadership is not just for introverts, although they are becoming increasingly desirable in the C-suite, as they tend to possess soft skill sets. The hands-off, listening-centric "quiet management" approach has been adopted by many CEOs, including Dennis Pullin, president and CEO of Marlton, N.J.-based Virtua Health. 

In a recent interview with Becker's, Mr. Pullin said he wished he would have coined the term "quiet management" a long time ago. He aspired to the leadership style before there was a popular name for it. 

"It's about trust," Mr. Pullin said. "Even the most talented leaders only have so much time in his or her day, and so you have to build teams that feel empowered or well-positioned to do what you asked of them. You have to assume the best intentions of everybody, and you can still verify as you go." 

Mr. Pullin rejects micromanagement in exchange for "curiosity," asking the right guiding questions but not assuming what the answers will be. He strives to practice soft leadership by creating spaces where he can be "authentic" and "vulnerable" in step with his colleagues — and where he can be called out on his blind spots. For example, he began a podcast to interview people who inspired him, usually other healthcare leaders, clergy members, politicians and celebrities. He also was encouraged to give less-visible roles access to the platform, which led to the creation of a second podcast featuring secretaries, accountants, nurses and assistants. 

"I put myself every week in a vulnerable position to talk to one of our employees, to hear about things that we're doing well or some of the things that we have an opportunity to improve," he said. "To me, that's what we should do as leaders. I think as a leader, I have a responsibility to try and create communities of wellness."

Actively listening and seeking criticism can help improve self-awareness, which is one of the "greatest traits a leader can have," according to Mr. Pullin. 

Self-awareness is also valued by Annie Thomas-Landrum, MSN, RN, who shared a recent statement with Becker's on leadership types. Ms. Thomas-Landrum serves on the board of directors at Sunshine Community Health Center in Talkeetna, Alaska, and believes introspection can help leaders weather industry challenges. 

"The ability to be self-aware enough to self-regulate in the face of these challenges, to be aware of the emotions they bring, feel them and not add fuel to their fire, but instead to accept, regroup and keep moving, this is a leader who can navigate whatever comes," Ms. Thomas-Landrum said. "There isn't a playbook for where we are." 

Donna Padilla, executive partner and healthcare market leader at WittKieffer, told Becker's the firm tries to "dig under those [soft/hard] labels" typically assigned to introverts and extroverts. Both can be either, and different organizations will require different competencies. If everything is going great inside the organization, an outgoing, external-facing CEO might be ideal — someone who can be "exuberant on 'Good Morning America' every day," Ms. Padilla said. But soft-spoken CEOs have usually trained themselves to put on this face, too — even if they need some alone time after the cocktail hour. 

"What's hidden behind [the traditional CEO trope] is you need someone who can be authentic and build strong relationships," Ms. Padilla said. "Introverts can do that.

"We've always assumed we need somebody who just wants to kiss babies and shake hands. And maybe that's not what we need." 

As flexible work arrangements permeate the cultural discussion, questions of hard versus soft dynamics have taken on new urgency. Some executives are leaning into their authoritative sides as they aim to regain control over productivity and performance metrics. Employees' favor hangs in the balance: Can a CEO listen and be listened to? Can they wield a soft heart and a firm hand?

Mr. Pullin thinks the answer is yes. 

"Am I demanding? Absolutely. But I don't believe in this commander kind of disposition," he said. "I believe in holding people accountable. But I like authenticity in terms of showing up with a willingness to be vulnerable and to hear ideas that might contradict with my own. 

"I don't confuse that with being undefined. I think you can be soft and still be heard. You don't have to raise your voice. I don't think you need to be domineering to be effective."

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