Leaders Come Clean: The Hard and Rewarding Work of Transparency in Business Leadership

Kathryn Scanland Leadership

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Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

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Coming clean, or transparency, is about being open.  It’s about being real and genuine.  The counterfeit of transparency is illusion: pretending, “seeming” rather than “being,” making things appear different than they really are. ~Stephen M.R. Covey
Not long ago I had a conversation with someone about trust. He believed that because he had not told a flat-out lie, the level of trust between us should not be affected by his hiding things or withholding and failing to disclose information. I disagreed. His lack of transparency caused me to be suspicious and uncertain what I could, or couldn’t, believe; hence, I wasn’t sure when I could really trust him.
Ironically, a few months prior to this, I had another conversation with this same person. In this instance, I had gone through a rather traumatic experience and he asked me how I got through it. I responded with one word: transparency. From the instant I got the news of this ordeal, I selected a few people to whom I disclosed everything – what was happening, what I was feeling, my struggle to process everything as quickly as it was unfolding, etc.  That transparency was a Godsend.  Coming clean, being frank, open and candid with people I trusted was a reflection of the quality of my relationship with these people.
Authors Karen Walker and Barbara Pagano describe transparency like this:

Leaders who keep in mind the spirit of authenticity while working hard to create meaningful connections with their followers, demonstrating sincerity of being, and revealing personal information that adds value to the context of work, will be practicing an important part of leadership transparency that builds credibility. Doing so, however, requires a certain level of maturity and self-awareness and a heightened sense of how people might perceive, dissect, and disseminate the information that is revealed. And because authenticity or personal transparency ultimately describes the quality of a relationship, leaders must create opportunities in which to engage with their followers, allowing the followers to know them. [Source: TheLinkage Leader, Transparency: The Clear Path to Leadership Credibility,Karen Walker & Barbara Pagano, 2005-2008.]

Stephen M.R. Covey says that transparency will usually establish trust fast. I would contend that the opposite is also true.  A lack of transparency will usually erode trust very quickly.  So how do we move toward a higher degree of transparency?
Organizational and leadership gurus, James O’Toole and Warren Bennis say that, “If you want to develop a culture of candor [and transparency], start with your own behavior and then work outward – and keep these recommendations in mind. Tell the truth. Encourage people to speak truth to power. Reward contrarians.  Practice having unpleasant conversations. Diversify your sources of information. Admit your mistakes. Build organizational support for transparency. Set information free.”
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