Thursday, July 22, 2010

Transparency and Leadership

What does it mean to be "transparent"? It's a concept that is bandied about a great deal when talking about organizations and leadership. Transparency in human interactions implies openness in communications and a willingness to let people see what is going on in leadership circles. Some leaders absolutely hate the word and its implications for how they go about their business. Those leaders tend to view transparency as invasive and burdensome to their process.

I believe that transparency and openness are good. From my perspective a leadership cadre can be both transparent and yet maintain confidentiality in specific instances, such as in personnel discussions and in strategies for product launches or lawsuits.

My proclivity for transparency as a leader arises out of a philosophy that shared knowledge empowers the community and that the converse is also true. Withholding access to information disrespects and disempowers the community, engendering anxiety that can easily morph into suspicion, fear and distrust. An administration doing excellent work can be brought low by mismanagement of its information dissemination.

Community relations is very much about perceptions and the attitudes displayed by community leaders and their communications cadre. A frequent perception is that leaders who do not practice transparency are paternalistic in how they choose when and how much information the community needs and "can handle." A comprehensive communications process would include sufficient educational pieces and resource links to set the stage for the information being shared.

People are curious about how the leadership circle operates. We want to understand what our leaders see and experience and the processes they utilize to arrive at their decisions. Just as young children ask "Why?" repeatedly, adults also ask the "Why?" question in their heads even when they don't ask out loud. It's the same curiosity that is shared by the many people who make the Discovery Channel documentaries and endless hours of C-SPAN footage staples of television. People want to know not only "Why?" but also "How?". People want to "see" for themselves, because seeing is believing.

Social media such as blogs and tweets are vehicles that every leader has the opportunity to use to share information quickly and widely. News stories "go viral" these days, mushrooming into broad circulation long before the type is set and the trucks have rolled out to deliver the newsprint. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a significant percentage of votes are motivated by the perceived transparency of the candidates, especially in elections within nonprofit organizations.

So, dear reader, the challenge for all of us is, how do we encourage our leaders to be more transparent? In some cases the answer is legislation; we mandate that meetings are open and reports are made within deadlines. However, in other cases, the challenge lies beyond the effects of legislation. Certainly, care in nominating and electing the right candidates matters. Engagement in the political process, whether as a citizen or a member of a nonprofit organization, is required.

My observation is that the biggest challenge is, how do we encourage entrenched leaders, already elected and in place, to be more transparent when it's not their practice to be, because of their personality or philosophy? How do we, as constituents, live into our responsibilities such that we encourage and challenge our leaders to be more transparent without incurring the opposite responses of increased secrecy and disenfranchisement? If you have any answers, I'd really like to hear them.


Deborah Sampson said...

What a provocative blog! As an elected leader of a group, I am dismayed when a member publicly berates us for not being transparent. Everything in me cries, "Do you want to know every little piece of information we consider? Isn't it enough to let you know of the options in our final consideration and to solicit your opinion on those options?" I suspect that most of our members don't want to know the minor things.
On the other hand, I am not sure if our desire for "transparency" from government officials comes from a desire to understand their thought process or from a suspicion that transparency would expose corruption and a total disregard for us in government decisions. My initial reaction is that Congress is pretty transparent that their laws are designed to benefit their big donors, not their constituents. De we need more transparency to expose that? That is part of what makes your blog so provocative.


Deborah, as an elected leader and speaking from experience as a former customer service manager of a bank, my take on complaints is that they often point to deeper issues that lie below the surface of the articulated complaint. My inclination is to dig deeper and try to respond to the real issue(s). I'm also inclined not to blame the complainer as being off-base until I've had a chance to explore further. I agree with you that most constituents don't want to know the nitty-gritty details of events and issues, unless they suspect they've been bamboozled.

In regard to government officials and the subject of transparency, I'm of the camp that is willing to overlook minor acts of self-interest if most things are moving along okay. However, when the disregard for citizens and taxpayers is rampant and blatant, that's another story entirely. Thus, I am a big supporter of activist organizations, the alternative press and investigative reporters, while at the same time also recognizing that even do-gooders can become self-absorbed with self-interest.

Would't it be wonderful if people just followed the Golden Rule?