How (Un)Common is Transparent Leadership?

There’s a difference between leaders and managers. When people follow leaders, they collectively advance an aspirational vision that furthers the impact of an organization. Managers are bosses who ensure that their reports complete workplace transactions efficiently. The finest leaders are also skilled as managers.

Effective leaders gain the trust of their communities with transparent communications. They are open to frank discussions about the course that they have initiated.  These leaders ably address unpleasant or awkward situations whenever they face challenges and pushback.

Of course, transparency has limits. A leader’s unceasing focus on financial difficulties or the poor quality that the organization produces can lead to a continuous torrent of bad news, which is damaging to overall morale. Hence, while openly and honestly recognizing obstacles and headwinds, the effective leader simultaneously presents a viable vision to overcome these challenges to induce confidence.

When they are unsure how to proceed, transparent leaders do not hesitate to appear vulnerable. They ask for suggestions. How might they proceed to address a specific goal?  Again, there’s a limit to this.  A leader cannot keep asking for suggestions endlessly, particularly about the minutiae of daily operations. The continually unsure leader sows confusion and eventually loses the trust of the organization.  However, by  exposing vulnerability selectively, a leader displays authentic behaviour.

Being truthful about themselves and their organizations can be uncomfortable for leaders. A 2011 Corporate Executive Board survey suggests that “the truth is harder to come by the further up the chain it moves.” In other words, the higher up employees are in the hierarchy of an organization the more concerned they become about tarnishing their images. They begin to believe that that their openness will be career-limiting.

Leaders risk alienating and even losing their organization’s best talent when they are opaque about their goals and decisions.  This happens too often, leading to a loss of productivity. Too much is “kept secret because of habit, culture, internal power politics, and a fear of embarrassment or accountability”.

Universities are no exception. Budget deliberations, internal allocation policies and background turf wars become shrouded in secrecy. Administrators develop an aversion to assuming risk since fear of failure can become generalized in many quarters of the academy. Once this ethos is seeded, it presents a major obstacle to the adjustments that any university must make to respond to our fast changing society and innovation ecosystem.

In principle. the shared governance system of universities values leaders who open shutters, letting sunshine in, and openly share information to align senior and middle leadership with their vision.  Once a tough decision is made, they share it and don’t hum and haw. They create a culture that provides honest information about the workings of units, the challenges that these units face and their progress towards stated aspirations.

The more transparent leaders are the more effective they become. Their actions encourage much higher engagement of the talent in their organizations than would otherwise have been possible.

Further reading:

  1. Lessons On Transparent Leadership From A Former U.S. Defence Secretary by Robert M. Gates, Fast Company, January 14, 2016.
  2. Be a Leader. Are you Ready? by Ishwar K. Puri, Fireside With The Dean, September 28, 2015.

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