The Transparency Debate: How Much Should Leaders Share?

by  Karin Hurt  |  Leadership Development

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

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About The Author

Articles By karin-hurt
Karin Hurt is a leadership speaker, consultant and MBA professor. She’s a former Verizon Wireless executive with 2 decades of diverse cross-functional experience in sales, customer service and HR. She was recently recognized on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Speakers for your next conference, AMA’s 50 Leaders to Watch in 2015, and Trust Across America’s 100 Thought Leaders in Trusted Business Behavior.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Erika Hayes James  |  15 Oct 2012  |  Reply

One of my areas of work is in crisis leadership. And I recommend that in times of crisis it is critical that leaders display more transparency…much more. In such an unsettling time as during a crisis, internal and external stakeholders need to see and hear from the leader as much as possible, and in an honest manner.

Karin Hurt  |  18 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks so much. Fully agree… at times of crises people need the real deal more than ever.

Rosanna Hunt  |  15 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I believe that transparency is an essential leadership skill for the current times.
How can we define our shared purpose (a meaningful hopeful future we all really care about) if we don’t share some of the stuff that is close to our hearts? The challenge for leaders is to create an environment to enable that to happen, and its not necessarily going to happen just because you demonstrate the desired behaviours. People ask need to move together on this because its a journey of trust.

Karin Hurt  |  18 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks so much! Yes! It isn’t just modeling… but creating the safe space to encourage it. Love it.

Glen Gaugh  |  17 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for the post, Karin. I am not an executive, but I struggle with the amount of transparency to use with my team of mental health social workers and counselors. It can be very personally taxing doing this kind of work, so a certain amount of personal transparency does a lot for morale. Certainly, being transparent about what drives one’s passion for the work is important as well.
Thanks again!

Karin Hurt  |  18 Oct 2012  |  Reply

thanks so much for adding this… I have a good friend in that line of work as well… it can be even more tricky. I am excited to hear about what you are doing in that arena. Thanks!

Skip Bazile  |  19 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Saw this post through a friend. And I agree the days of playing hide-n-seek are over, or it should be. Transparency is what will win the day, and future. Our world has come along way from the days in which leaders needed to keep to themselves and hold back sharing themselves with their staff. Things has changed some much now that we may find our leaders some of the very people we grew up with, went to school with, or even started a company with. The real issue is how will staff take to transparency? Will they be suspicious? Will they believe it to be authentic? As time goes forward this will be less of an issue.

Karin Hurt  |  20 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Skip, thanks so much for joining the conversation. I love the metaphor of hide and seek. You raise a good point about how the transparency will be received. I have seen this happen, if team members are not used to that style… it may take some time to build trust.

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