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 As a result, they implicitly reinforce an outdated model of leadership that holds CEOs to the letter of perfection while dismissing the reality of struggle.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.
CEOs have much to gain from embracing this new level of openness and candor. By acknowledging and accepting their human imperfections, they become more authentic in their leadership, and create a culture that promotes this as well. So how can executives operating in today’s brutal business environment advance their journey towards leading authentically while at the same time improving corporate performance?
Acknowledge inward first. When something doesn’t go as planned, it is easy to blame others. Instead, carefully examine your own role in the mishap first. Be honest with yourself, and ask what you could have done differently. In Hogan’s case, he had personally hired the individual who ultimately turned out to have bad ethics. Openly acknowledging this to himself was an important first step.
Understand the healing power of an apology. An apology brings closure to the past and starts a new beginning. So often we get hung up on saving face that we don’t appreciate all the good that can come from a simple apology. When Hogan apologized to his employees, he appealed to them on a human level, rebuilding trust and starting afresh.
Keep an eye on performance. Leading more authentically does not mean sacrificing performance; it simply encourages you to perform in a way that is that is more human and less machine. Hogan, whose performance while CEO significantly outpaced the S&P, summed it up very well, when he said that he wanted to build “a high-performance company with a heart.”
Struggle in business is inevitable. But by acknowledging mistakes and acting swiftly to remedy the situation, executives have the opportunity to turn a major crisis into an even bigger opportunity.
Steven Snyder is the managing director of Snyder Leadership Group. He worked closely with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, and previously served as CEO of Net Perceptions. He is the author of Leadership and the Art of Struggle (Berrett-Koehler, March 2013).