Leaders talk about openness and transparency. That is good. It is nearly impossible in this age of empowered social media to be successful as a command-and-control leader. But talking about openness is not enough. You must act on that openness too.
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
In the Obama team’s 2008 campaign book, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise, we find a number of passages about what openness and transparency would look like under a future Obama Administration. They write: “When it comes to the corrupting influence of lobbyists on our politics, sunshine is truly the best disinfectant” (p. 149).
This is an ironic plagiarism of Justice Louis Brandeis’ 1913 quote “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” but we can all agree with the larger point. It is better to expose potential corruption than to cover it up.
In a more interesting passage about openness, we find this elaboration:
It means opening up our government with greater transparency so average citizens can access the information they need to hold their leaders accountable. And it means inspiring and calling on all Americans to engage as citizens.
Our government has an important role to play in this work, and every aspect of it should be under review. We’ll eliminate waste, streamline bureaucracy, and cut outmoded programs. An Obama Administration will open up the doors of democracy. It will put government data online, and use technology to shine a light on spending. It will invite the service and participation of American citizens, and cut through the red tape to make sure that every agency is meeting the highest standards. It will hold true to the obligations we have as stewards of our precious natural resources. And an Obama Administration will make sure that the doors of opportunity and community are open to all. We can’t begin to tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century without the hard work, creativity, and patriotism of every American (p. 146).
Now, these ideas are compelling. Who does not want a transparent government that is open to all? But campaigning and governing have turned out to be two different things. The promise of the campaign was not redeemed by the actions of the administration.
Openness is defined not by the leader, but by the followers.
If your followers say that you are not open and transparent, odds are that you are not. In all fairness to Mr. Obama, liberals said the same thing about George W. Bush, particularly as it related to the war in Iraq.
The First Rule of Leadership
The first rule of leadership is simple: Do what you say you will do. Your actions must be consistent with your words. In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner wrote:
Here are some of the common phrases people use to describe how they know credibility when they see it:
- They practice what they preach.
- They walk the talk.
- Their actions are consistent with their words.
- They put their money where their mouth is.
- They follow through on their promises.
- They do what they say they will do.
A judgment of “credible” is handed down when words and deeds are consonant (p. 40).
[Note: The Leadership Challenge is required reading for aspiring leaders.]
What Does This Mean for Those Who Aspire to Lead Well?
When it comes to transparency, what is true in politics is also true in business.
It does not matter if we are talking about a scandal like Benghazi or the rumors of layoffs at the office (the premise of the hit TV show, The Office), failing to be open leads to a breach of trust. You cannot lead effectively when your people do not fundamentally trust you.
Is your organization transparent?
November 27, 2012
Dr. Gerdes is the Director of the MBA Program at Charleston Southern University