Transparency: Corporate Buzzword or Leadership Necessity?

Our world these days is filled with jargon and nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of leadership. Every few years another term takes hold that is often used mindlessly in an attempt to motivate and inspire. In reality, these terms are often dismissed by experienced team members as the latest flavor of the month or leadership fad. For a humorous, and accurate, depiction of this topic see Andrew Neitlich’s post advising executive coaches to avoid leadership clichés.

Yet some often-used terms in leadership are more than clichés–they are absolute necessities for authentic leadership. Let’s look at one example: transparency.

What is Transparency?

Transparency in leadership requires openly sharing relevant information with those who will be affected by the information. Most leaders find it easy to share positive information: We closed the deal, met our earnings target, landed a prestigious client, or attracted a coveted employee. It feels good to share this kind of information. After all, who isn’t motivated by happy news?

Yet great leaders also understand the importance of being transparent when the report is not so positive. Team members respect a leader who shares messages that may be difficult to deliver, present a clear challenge, or–believe it or not–even produce anxiety. The road to success is not linear. I have not worked with a single leader who has achieved greatness without also enduring significant setbacks from time to time. The role of a leader is not to withhold negative information from team members, but rather to acknowledge reality and present a clear plan for how to overcome difficult challenges. At times, the leader has to prepare the team for an extended period of adversity in the short-term in order to work through those challenges and achieve long-term success.

To demonstrate the importance of sharing challenging information, I’ll share an experience I had with a very senior leader in a sales organization many years ago. This leader was a superstar in her industry, rising quickly through the ranks to head one of the major regions in the company. She was very energetic, highly motivated and eternally optimistic, all positive leadership characteristics. Yet when I interviewed her team members, they believed she lacked substance. She was described as a “rah-rah” leader. The team even questioned her trustworthiness and viewed her as self-promotional. In fact, this leader was highly ethical, extremely knowledgeable about her field and dedicated to doing things the right way. She was devastated to find that her attempt to be a positive motivating force resulted in unintentionally compromising her credibility. Leadership lesson: Lack of transparency in the face of adversity compromises credibility.

Why Many Leaders Aren’t Transparent

So, if you buy the concept that true transparency requires sharing positive updates as well as information that’s tough to swallow, why aren’t many leaders truly transparent? In my experience the answer is most often due to these factors:

Insecurity: Many leaders do not share challenging information because they believe (consciously or unconsciously) unfavorable news negatively reflects on their own ability. In other words, if something negative has occurred on my watch, it must be due to something I have done wrong. Secure leaders understand situations will not always turn out as planned and do not view setbacks as an indictment of their ability. They openly share adverse situations and use them to mobilize their teams towards finding solutions. Nothing brings a team together more than circling the wagons in times of difficulty. They rely on each other under fire and strengthen their trust in one another through overcoming adversity. Insecure leaders prevent a team from achieving these transformative experiences out of concern for their own reputation. Leadership lesson: Don’t personalize negative events. Share them and let your team benefit by learning from them.

Denial: Other leaders avoid transparency during difficult times because they refuse to admit that negative results indicate their plan or path needs adjustment. They minimize the impact of adverse information or dismiss it by rationalizing situations. Their ego prevents them from incorporating information that indicates the need to change course or adjust a plan. This short-term denial breeds long-term disaster. Leadership lesson: Think like a scientist. Treat all data as information that is potentially valid. I’ve discussed the concept of treating personal feedback as nothing more than data in my blog Creating a Development Culture. The same principle holds for teams and organizations.

Fear: Let’s face it, adverse situations are scary. Great leaders do not run from fear. They recognize it as a signal calling for action. Properly acknowledged fear is motivating. Unembraced fear becomes a crippling emotion leading to inaction. Leadership lesson: Develop a level of self-awareness that allows you to use your emotions to your advantage. Fear is not a weakness if it propels you to appropriate action. For advice on increasing self-awareness, see my discussion How Do I Become Self-Aware?

Transparency in leadership is not a cliché, it is a necessary quality for greatness. Make the commitment to demonstrate transparency in good times and bad. This will deepen the trust your team has in you and create amazing loyalty. Remember, you and your team are in this together!

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