Transparent Leaders

Leadership Excellence

November 12, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith and Patricia Wheeler

Once we were asked to help a promising executive who was struggling in his new role. He’d been recruited for his record as a technical expert, innovator, and change agent. However, he was seen as aggressive, abrasive, ambitious, and ignorant of the culture.

This critical feedback from colleagues caused his boss to be alarmed and him to be resentful and respond by communicating less and pushing harder.

When we met him, we experienced a passionate and caring man, driven by his dedication to finding a cure for a disease that had killed his father.

Think what happens when others’ perceptions of you don’t match your intent. When you feel misunderstood, when your talent is not recognized or appreciated, do you choose to move to a place where you can feel more appreciated? Or do you try harder to push through it? Or is there a way to bridge the gap between intention and behavior? When your push for change outpaces the tolerance of the culture, you need greater awareness into the impact your behavior has on others.

In this case, behavior change alone was unlikely to create trust and drive the changes needed in his team. He needed to increase his transparency to others. His peers needed to see that his passion and ambition were not about increasing his personal recognition or position, but about something more meaningful. And he needed to see that to succeed, he had to work through others–and that meant increasing his transparency to build trustworthiness.

We held a meeting in which he asked his peers to describe what was important to them–why they were engaged in this work. He told them about his father, his early decision to dedicate his life to this work, and how difficult it was for him in the company.

And he asked for their help. When his team understood his real intention, they rallied around him and began to see each other’s goals and the priorities of the team. They agreed how to support one another, give feedforward regularly, and deal with conflict. They began to work as a team rather than a collection of brilliant individuals.

The success of his team was driven by increased transparency–the ability of those around him to read his intent and see behind his surface behaviors.

And this allowed him to show his humanity and create team success.

Withholding Information
In the age of knowledge workers, information truly is power–which makes withholding information debilitating, as it subtracts value, especially when done subversively to gain power. It’s the need to win, only more devious, and it appears in many forms: playing your cards close to your vest, keeping secrets, protecting sources, leaving certain people out of the information flow, not returning phone calls, not answering emails, giving partial answers, concealing the facts, and saying halftruths for PR purposes.

If you don’t see why it annoys people, reflect on how you feel about a meeting you aren’t told about, a memo or e-mail you aren’t copied on, or a moment when you are the last person to learn something. Not sharing information rarely achieves the desired effect. You may think you gain an edge and consolidate power, but you breed mistrust. To gain power, you need to inspire loyalty, not fear and suspicion.

We’re talking about the willful poison- sowing refusal to share information in an effort to divide and conquer, and also about all the unintentional or accidental ways we withhold information when we’re too busy to get back to someone, or forget to include someone in our discussions or meetings, or delegate a task but don’t show people exactly how we want the task done.

If you and your assistant aren’t meshing as a team, why not? What would your assistant say is your biggest flaw as a boss? Perhaps you don’t communicate well with her, leave her out of the loop, and keep her in the dark, simply because you are so distracted, disorganized, and busy responding to calls and putting out fires that you never sit down with her for a daily briefing. You mean well, but you fail to get around to it, and over time it looks like you are withholding information.

Make sharing information a higher priority. Take time to debrief coworkers daily. You’ll improve your communication and show that you care–that what they think matters to you.

Changing Behaviors
The higher up you go, the more your problems are behavioral and interpersonal. Your people skills are what sets you apart, and changes in your behavior are often the most important changes you can make. However, you have habitual behaviors, both positive and negative, that you define as ‘me,’ your inalterable essence. So, if you’re poor at returning phone calls, you excuse yourself when you fail to return calls. To change would mean going against who you are–it would be inauthentic. If you resist praising others, you do so because you’re being ‘true’ to yourself, exercising ‘my right to be me.’ You may even see your flaws as virtues–because they constitute what you think of as ‘me.’ This misguided and excessive need to be me is a major obstacle to making positive behavioral change. Your definition of who you are is limiting. So when you give praise, you think, ‘This isn’t me.’ Why isn’t this you? Why can’t you think of yourself as a boss who is good at giving positive recognition? You know that it makes people feel and perform better; hence, doing this will boost your career.

When you realize that your allegiance to your self-limiting definition of who you are is pointless, you can shed your excessive need to be me.

The less you focus on yourself and the more you consider what your people are feeling, the more you benefit.

Your reputation as a manager of people will soar–and so will your career: less me, more them = success. Remember this when you cling to a false or pointless notion of ‘me.’ It’s not about you but what other people think of you. LE

Marshall Goldsmith helps successful leaders achieve positive, measurable change in behavior. Visit

Patricia Wheeler is an executive coach and Managing Partner of the Levin Group. Email

ACTION: Be more transparent as a leader.