The Transparent Leader

Seven years ago, I interviewed for a job and was asked about my leadership beliefs. I began listing my beliefs, one by one, and the interviewer beamed from ear to ear, until I hit my last belief. I stated was that a leader should be transparent, and then I saw that smile get smaller and smaller. When I finished, the interviewer asked me to clarify what I meant by “transparency,” and that’s when I knew that this was not the job for me. I had been asked this question before by a former supervisor who wanted me to say, essentially, that I didn’t mean “transparent” by its definition. My supervisor wanted me to say that I would just share information a bit more. Sharing was safe and non-threatening, unlike transparency. When I stated this similar explanation with the interviewer, the smile crept back. I wasn’t supposed to be transparent with others. I was supposed to follow a professional code.

Both people (former supervisor and job interviewer) came from the same school of thought: transparency was not a key part of leadership. Employees did not need to know about the inner workings of an organization. They only needed to know information that would keep them happy and productive. However, I was trained under a different school of thought: transparency is a part of leadership and should be handled with care. If employees are to be engaged and efficient, then it’s important to share information with them and be honest about it. Needless to say, my mindset and training did not fit the organization in which I applied. Thank goodness leadership theories (and mindsets) are changing.

“People in organizations of all types are better off when their leaders are smart, honest, and caring when taking bold, potentially unpopular actions- when they focus on helping the organization move forward,” according to Edmondson and Chamorro-Premuzic.  This has to be one of the hardest decisions to make – doing something unpopular for the greater good. However, that is the popular direction of leadership these days.  There was a time when it was best to keep employees in the dark about problems -even good problems- within an organization. The thought was that people should know only what they need to know, which meant knowing little to nothing about the what was happening “behind the scenes.” Over time, transparency became a key mark of good leadership. Servant leadership, democratic leadership, ethical leadership, and transformative leadership all promote transparency.  While transparency does not mean telling everyone about every single thing, it does mean sharing the general highs and lows of an organization and how it affects people. That’s hard to do if a leader is not used to being open and vulnerable.

Mother Teresa Quote

How does one be more transparent?

We often use the term transparency, knowing that it basically means being “open.” Though in leadership, it’s more than that, so let’s break this concept of the transparent leader down into what it really is. A transparent leader is:

  1. Vulnerable: this is someone who is open to whatever comes their way. In other words, this person doesn’t just accept the praise, but also the criticism. A vulnerable person has to develop a thick skin in order to be effective, but thick skin does not mean being guarded.
  2. Focused on doing what’s best for the organization: This can be tough when what is best for an organization may not feel good at the moment. Examples include downsizing, reorganizing departments for effectiveness, or changing goals and directions based on reflection and thought. While the long-term outcome may be great, the current moment may feel horrible.
  3. Openly imperfect: Self-help anyone? No one wants to show imperfection, but the reality is that we can’t hide ours in the first place. Being openly imperfect means that we acknowledge our flaws and don’t cover them, trying to act like we’re something we’re not.
  4. Reliant on others to achieve goals: It’s a lot easier to admit and embrace our flaws when we have a great team with their own strengths to contribute. Transparent leaders know that there’s no “I” in “team;” so they rely on others to get great things done. The 20th century leader tried to do everything alone and take the credit. The 21st century leader has a team and shares the credit.
  5. Willing to receive and reflect on helpful criticism: I remember a graduate writing class where we swapped papers with our classmates. We had to constructively critique that classmates’ work and they had to critique ours. Ouch!  Criticism doesn’t feel good, even when it’s meant to help, but the transparent leader relies on it anyway, knowing that getting better is all about receiving help from others. There are traits about ourselves that we simply don’t notice until another person points them out, but being open to constructive criticism and learning from it helps us evolve.
  6. Honest and truthful, even with bad news: This aligns with doing what is best. Regardless of good news or bad news, the transparent leader is fully honest. Honesty (depending on what it is) may not always end well, but when it comes to leading- honesty really is the best policy.
  7. Authentic: i.e. the real deal. The transparent leader embraces authenticity, which is another way of saying – what you see is what you get. People respond to authenticity and the transparent leader understands that there’s no use in acting like someone else. People can spot “fake” a mile away. With all of the changes in society, people have learned to appreciate others who live and act truthfully. This motto for life has spilled over into leadership, so you now have permission to be your authentic self, personally and professionally.

The concept of transparency isn’t new, but it is becoming more prevalent when discussing leadership. There simply isn’t one particular way to be a leader anymore, which means we each have a chance to construct our own styles. While the tenets of different leadership theories are important to incorporate, traits such as transparency get to be shaped by each one of us, which is an authentic, truthful, and vulnerable way to live. Embrace it.

Keep leading and stay safe,

One Comment Add yours

  1. Chas Sullivan says:

    An on time read and quite refreshing to gain more insights on transparency in leadership!

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