Transparency in Leadership – is it Always a Good Thing?

Posted By John Camardo on May 9, 2014 | 0 comments

As a follow up to Why Is Trust So Important?, I had mentioned that I would (at some point) write on this topic, so here are some of my thoughts.

Transparency can imply many things, right?

It can be viewed as positive (open, honest, truthful) or negative (direct, forthright, thoughtless, curt, rude, sharp, terse). I realize that some may even view a few of the negatives I just mentioned as positive, but I don’t want to get lost in this part of the conversation.

I believe there are many positive aspects of transparency as a leader – things that I should look to model in how I lead my team, my family, etc. I should be open, honest, truthful, etc. There are even benefits associated with letting those you lead feel the weight of situations or decisions you may be facing (assuming they are directly or indirectly involved). This can be used to develop leaders while still maintaining a level of ownership to insulate them a bit. So, all the positive stuff mentioned, keep doing it! There is plenty written on those types of things. What I really want to focus on is the times that transparency as a leader is not a good thing…well, better said, not the best thing.

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Isn’t that the opposite of transparency? Well, let me try and explain.

I believe there are times that a leader needs to effectively steward information they have access to. Not for the sake of secrecy or hiding facts, but for the sake of the greater good or simply showing grace and mercy.

So, you may be saying “who are you to determine what the ‘greater good’ is”? Well, I would argue that this is one of the responsibilities placed on a leader – to make the best decision.

Let’s run this down a bit more…

Many times a leader has access to information that could clearly justify a decision they are making, but may be harmful to the credibility or reputation of someone else (whether that is a person, a company, a church, a government, etc.). It doesn’t change the decision that you have to make, but it changes what you communicate about your decision-making process. You have likely heard the phrase “less is more” when it comes to some forms of communication. I would agree that the premise behind that statement holds true in those moments when you have to make a tough choice and, for the sake of the other people involved, you only communicate what needs to be said vs. everything that could be said. I’m sure you can think of a few examples where information was not used the right way and you saw (or personally experienced) the aftermath and repercussions of what and how something was communicated.

Communicating only what needs to be said instead of everything that could be said is often done at great personal expense. Meaning, our human nature is to defend ourselves with all that is at our disposal. So, when we choose to leave those weapons on the ground, we are taking the hit ourselves. One of the senior leaders I work with calls this phenomenon “eating wood”. It may be just a silly southern phrase (like “might could” and “y’all”), but it fairly accurately describes the feeling when you know you could easily justify or defend your position or decision, but choose not to. The weight of leadership is often felt in these moments (with some splinters along the way!).

But that is what we sign up for, isn’t it?

I oftentimes see young leaders who desire a greater domain of influence but have no idea what it’s like to be in that position. I remember when I thought the same way. It looks great from the outside, but I have no idea what it’s like to fill the shoes of that leader because I don’t have access to the same information they do. We can say this about many leaders in our lives – our direct manager, the owner of the company we work for, our pastor, our President…I could go on, but the same basic premise holds true. I personally didn’t anticipate the cost associated with leading.

So, what do we need to do differently?

I look at it as a need for a change in perspective.  This is where I believe the concept of servant leadership comes into play. My ability to show grace as a leader is directly connected to my ability to be sensitive to the information I have been given. If I start feeling desensitized to how information affects people, I have moved past serving others to serving myself (appealing to my selfish nature that wants to defend myself at all costs or make myself look good at the possible expense of another).

All that being said, part of leading oftentimes means making tough decisions that involve people…but that is part of the weight of leadership.

It sometimes doesn’t feel like I am serving someone when I have to make a decision that affects them very directly…but that is also part of the weight of leadership.

Taking the hits as a leader requires a humble, sacrificial spirit that is willing to serve others and show great grace when given the opportunity. I firmly believe this represents the best kind of leader…and for the really great leaders, most people around them don’t even know when it is happening because it simply is who they are – someone who can be trusted with the information they are given.

So, how well are you stewarding the information you have access to?

At times it’s a better decision to only share what is needed vs. all the details. I believe great leaders learn to manage that tension well.

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