To Lead with Authenticity, Embrace Struggle

Struggle and leadership are unquestionably intertwined. Whether attempting to turnaround a fledgling organization, trying to discern the best way forward in today’s competitive marketplace, or rallying stakeholders around a new initiative, struggle is simply par for the leadership course. Yet cultural taboos have prevented executives from speaking openly about their struggles, fearing that such disclosure would indicate weakness, indecisiveness, or even incompetence.

Unfortunately, many executives have bought into this stigma; when faced with a challenging situation, they adopt a Donald Trump management style, hiding behind their authority and blaming others rather than conceding their own shortcomings. As a result, they implicitly reinforce an outdated model of leadership that holds CEOs to the letter of perfection while dismissing the reality of struggle.

However, there is a great sense of liberation for executives who recognize and accept that human perfection is an oxymoron. We are all flawed, and each struggle with our own set of challenges; the key is in acknowledging these flaws and shortcomings and using these struggles as opportunities to become better leaders. Randy Hogan, CEO of Pentair, exemplifies this new model of authentic leadership.

Hogan’s moment of challenge came several years into his tenure as CEO when he discovered that one of his top lieutenants, a person whom he had personally hired, may have engaged in unethical behavior. He quickly launched an investigation, and after determining that the allegations were valid, promptly fired the individual. He was shocked to discover that many of the people who worked for this person were aware of the inappropriate behavior but believed that Hogan himself had endorsed it. Hogan told me that the ordeal affected him deeply. “It made me doubt my effectiveness in terms of setting the standards inside the company.”

Instead of cowering, Hogan used this moment of crisis to boldly reassert his leadership, first by accepting responsibility for what had happened. “I had a number of all-employee meetings. I got up in front of folks, and I apologized.” Then he made what, in retrospect, turned out to be the breakthrough declaration: “I want you all to look me in the eye and know that I would rather lose right than win wrong. But, what we are all about is ‘winning right.’”

‘Winning right’ became Pentair’s mantra, propelling the company forward, not only ethically, but also with regard to its business and organizational strategy. It became a corporate measuring post, allowing Hogan to implement a number of needed changes and positioning the company for global growth over the ensuing decade.

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