The Transparency Debate: How Much Should Leaders Share?

As leaders grow in levels of responsibility, scope and scale, the issue of "transparency" becomes more significant.  Executives have insights into confidential strategy, complex nuances, and serious situations.  They also have large teams and a customer base watching every move.   It's common practice for leaders to pull back more as they rise in the business, revealing less about themselves as humans.  Some chose to show up strong, serious and a bit mysterious.   They create professional distance to drive results.  On the other hand, there are also examples of leaders who chose to be more open, sharing more about themselves and why they do what they do.

And so, I invite an expanded conversation.  What is the right level of transparency?  What are the pros and cons of being more closed or open?

Why Less Can Be More

There are many good reasons to create some distance.   Executives are public figures, and have many of the same risks as celebrities in terms of boundaries and privacy.  Also, for competitive reasons, some parts of strategy must be kept close to the vest.  Of course, there is also the need to carefully communicate sensitive topics in a controlled way.  Disclosing too much of a plan in progress can be dangerous as things change.  No need to get people worked up about something that might not materialize.

In her excellent post, Married to the Job:  How Leaders Show Commitment in Fast Changing World, Christina Lattimer (@pdiscoveryUK) shares an example of a leader who lost credibility by sharing too much about her intentions to stay in the job for a finite period of time.  The team did not want to feel like part of an executive's developmental assignment, even if that was the case.  They wanted a visionary leader who cared about them and their mission.  A great example of a transparency backfire.

Why More Can Be More

On the other hand, there can also be real value in leaders opening up and sharing a bit about themselves to the larger team. Showing up "human" can go a long way in building deep trust within an organization.  I am sensitive to all the concerns raised above, and am deliberate in what I disclose.  At the same time, I see real value in transparency where possible.   I believe people learn best when they have more information about why and how executives do the things they do.

With my direct report teams and mentoring relationships I tend to open up a bit about myself.  I have dinners at my home where they get to know my family,  and hear about the work I do at church, and the other stuff in my life.   They share back, and I know this creates deeper bonds and trust.

This year, that transparency has expanded substantially through my blogging.  Anyone in my organization (or around the world) can see my teachable point of view and what I am wrestling with as a leader.

Perhaps that's why at my last summit with my organization, I put away the PowerPoint slides and opened up to let them know more about me.  "I am a mom of 2 boys... my husband is a fireman...yes... we struggle with daycare with my travel and his overnight shifts.  I am a blogger and a runner, and it's hard to find time to do all those things well... but this is why I try..."   Not typical microphone fare.

The feedback has been amazing. Somehow, it was meaningful for folks to hear that I wrestle with the same issues they do.  I am a human trying to do the best I can, just like them. It has led to fantastic one-on-one conversations with folks on my larger team that I did not know well.  More are reaching out for mentoring and support with their work.  We are learning from one another, and results continue to climb.

And so, I invite you to join the conversation and share your insights.

What is the right balance of formal executive presence and transparent human disclosure?

What are the pros and cons to both sides of the continuum?  Please share your thoughts.

See Also:

Disclosure in Leadership:  The Benefits and Risks of Showing Up Real

Following the Leader?  Stop, Notice How it Makes You Feel

Humility Matters:

I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Photo © iStockPhoto