In a workshop a couple of weeks ago, the question of leadership transparency came up. When asked to describe qualities of effective leaders, participants engaged in a debate about how transparent you can – or need to – be as a leader. Some felt that you can’t truly get people to follow you if you don’t share information and are not forthcoming, while others felt that sharing bad news would be too discouraging for followers. Many leaders have proclaimed that the true measure of leadership is to look behind you and see if anyone is following you. That, then, begs the question: “Is transparency necessary to gain followers?”
I see leaders who don’t trust their followers enough to tell them the truth, whether from a paternalistic view that followers need protecting, or some other gallant motive. In the film, A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) defends his lack of transparency to Lt. Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) with his famous line, “You can’t handle the truth.”
Well-meaning leaders (not nearly so “grotesque” as Jessup’s character) want to spare others from bad news or the uncertainty of the future. I understand that motivation: the desire to protect others from unpleasantness is deeply rooted in many people.
But – and there is always a but – what if you trusted someone enough to tell them the unvarnished truth and let them handle it? It may result in a more engaged, responsible individual who is learning how to cope with the ups and downs of work and life today. It may result in new ideas that solve problems or create possibilities that you alone, as the leader, may never have considered.
To live a life that matters means to experience challenge, pain, disappointment and failure as well as achievement, pleasure, joy and success. To be less than transparent is to deprive another of the wonderful experience of thinking and planning their own future, of knowing they can take on difficulties and overcome them.
Isn’t that what leaders want of their followers?