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Transparent Leadership

Not long ago, a leader in another church asked me a question about how to handle a situation in his church. They are in the process of relocating to a new location and have been raising money for the new building. The question concerned how much information to divulge to the congregation regarding the sale of their current property.

In an expected twist, they were able to sell it for more than expected and without the use of a broker. They had raised money for the location based on the expected income from the sale — not the unexpected bonus. In an act of generosity, the board wanted to make a financial gift to the purchasing church – one that is smaller and reaches a growing community of immigrants.

My response: you can never go wrong with being honest and transparent.

It’s one thing if you are transparent with people and they don’t like the decision. It’s a leadership crisis if they find out later and then REALLY don’t like the decision. One approach fosters trust, even if they question your judgment or disagree on the details. In this case, a lack of transparency is about more than numbers; it’s about trusting people with those numbers. Especially if you are asking them to contribute to the next season of growth and opportunity.

As a leader or leadership team, are there things you don’t disclose?  Is it ever appropriate to withhold information? Yes – and it depends on the situation and circumstances.

Under normal circumstances, it’s generally not appropriate to discuss private details related to personnel issues. When those private issues spill into public view (for example, an employee that begins coming to work drunk), good leadership must acknowledge them and take appropriate action. When something is shared in confidence, it’s not being transparent to share that publicly. In fact, that’s a sure-fire way to reduce the number of confidential conversations you’ll be involved in.

I’ve also known people who felt they were being transparent but were actually just emptying their emotional garbage trunk on my front lawn. The beeps tell you the truck is in reverse and then … trash is all over the yard.

While it’s not appropriate to share every detail about everything, transparency around the right issues is one of the leader’s greatest assets.

In organizations, transparency helps foster a healthy sense of ownership and investment. Leaders who consistently withhold information are communicating to shareholders, “This organization really doesn’t belong to you. We want your support, but we don’t want your opinions or advice. Just do as we say.” That approach might work for the government, but it won’t produce a healthy, sustainable team or organization.

Transparency is closely linked to trust. Trust requires self-disclosure and risk. I’m going to reveal something about myself to you and I believe you will handle that information in a mature, healthy manner.

On a personal level, leaders who model transparency regarding leadership failures and mistakes are signaling several things:

  • I don’t have everything figured.
  • I’m still growing.
  • It’s ok to fail forward as long as you learn from your mistakes.
  • We are going to try things that won’t work out the way we planned.

In this sense, a transparent environment is an empowering environment. Employees, teammates, or volunteers learn that mistakes are necessary part of progress. When a leader fails to share his failures, he might be unintentionally (or intentionally) communicating that mistakes are not acceptable.

Knowing how and when to be transparent is a learned skill. It can be practiced and developed, often through trial and error. If you keep an open mind and heart, you will learn from both over-disclosure and under-disclosure, learning in the process what is the right level of information.

It will be uncomfortable. The information might be misused or maligned. But good leaders know, there is no substitute for transparency.

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Experience and Background

  • Professor at Warner University
  • masters in business administration (mba)
  • presenter at the WFX National Conference
  • former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
  • helped start 2 for-profit tech companies

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