Transparency in leadership is like selling mom and apple pie.  Everyone agrees it’s the best, but few actually do it.  The rewards of trust, teamwork and productivity are powerful and real.  The risks, however, frighten many leaders. How transparent should you be?

There are three aspects to transparent leadership – strategy, structure and interpersonal.  Strategy is often viewed as rarefied air, reserved for top management who are able to grasp the nuances and complexities of long term strategy.  How far should a leader go to be transparent about the real strategies embraced by management?  After all, some directions will benefit some employee groups and harm others.

Structure includes roles, responsibilities, talent management and core processes.  It is the organizational engine that produces the results that drive revenues and profit.  This part of the organization is often not transparent because management is uninterested in investing time and resources to truly understand how their organization functions.  For many leaders, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?  Like an automobile that runs well, the only time to look under the hood is when there is a problem. By then, troubles can run deep.  This is a major area of opportunity for transparency.

Interpersonal transparency is the most challenging. We all have something to hide, something to prove and something to lose.  Transparency demands a personal willingness to let yourself be vulnerable.  Whether you own the business or are a professional manager, people can and will use personal information to harm you.  Examples include your salary, company profitability and your personal opinions of people you work with.  Discretion is often the better part of valour.  Yet, personal transparency is what truly builds trust.  People will follow a leader who operates with an attitude of “what you see is what you get,” even if the leader has bad news to deliver.

Transparency is a decision to relinquish some control of your organization, your strategy and even your personal reputation.  That’s why it takes guts. The upside is that it is so uncommon, people will respect it, even if some will take advantage of you for it.

Transparency needs to be embraced as a long-term strategy by top management.  Every day, leaders are given opportunities to be more…or less…transparent. While this topic could fill an entire volume of books, in this blog posting, I want to encourage you to make the tiny, daily choices that support transparency.  Be truthful about a person’s performance.  Share the real numbers behind why a decision was made. Disclose how a bonus or stock option is actually influencing your decision. Express your concern about how something could make you or the company look bad. Invite a different kind of person to participate in your strategic planning or other key decision-making situations.

A leader only becomes transparent when he or she knows from personal experience that the upside of trust, commitment and frank discussion outweigh the benefits of controlling who gets to see what and how things look, whether it’s real or not.