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What Transparency Means Now for Leaders

More executives are playing the role of official spokesperson at their organizations, especially on tough topics. But going it alone isn’t always the best tactic.

The past few years may well be remembered as a time when transparency was a major source of concern for leaders and their stakeholders. Like you, I probably consumed too much information about what Elon Musk was and wasn’t being forthright about at X; meanwhile, the calls for leaders to be more open, either in the name of recruitment and retention or in the name of speaking out about social issues, have remained as intense as they were in 2020.

Small wonder, then, that CEOs increasingly feel that it’s their job to be the mouthpiece of the organization. A survey released last month by HarrisX and Ragan Communications found that 78 percent of CEOs say they alone “lead their organization’s external communications”—a whopping 38 percent leap from 2021. (The figures are similar for internal communications.) 

In some ways this is a good thing—a leader should play a key role in how the values and mission of an organization are shared. And with your staff, members, and stakeholders more comfortable than ever sharing their thoughts (or making demands), there’s more pressure than ever for clarity from leaders. As Melissa Swift, an executive at the workplace consultancy Capgemini Invent, recently wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review, “if people will see the reality of a given situation anyway, communicating about that reality from the jump means that individual leaders won’t have to scramble and backpedal when confronted by their teams.”

A transparent leader doesn’t have to cede the discussion to loudest voices in the room.

But that doesn’t mean a transparent leader has to cede the discussion to loudest voices in the room, or has no role in defining what’s important to communicate. Indeed, as Swift points out, a leader is uniquely empowered to cool tempers, turn people’s attention to the facts of a given situation, and make clear that the organization’s job is to listen, weigh, and consider various inputs, not make snap judgments.

That said, a leader can’t do all that alone. One downside of the HarrisX/Ragan survey’s findings about CEO communications is that it implies that CEOs are less trusting of their own communications teams. As a report on the survey put it, CEOs’ go-it-alone approach betrays “a disconnect between comms leaders who consider themselves autonomous in the function and CEOs who see comms as their responsibility.” And there are numerous examples regarding CEO statements about the current Middle East conflict that go-it-alone proclamations from the top can be divisive.

If leaders are trying to learn to trust themselves to be transparent, they have to trust their teams to be the same way too. A leader’s judgment has become “a critical tool for survival and success,” Capgemini Invent’s Swift writes. “Leaders will want to work on this skill themselves, but given that they cannot be in every one of a multiplying set of conversations all the time, they’ll also want their teams to get better at judgment.” Honesty, integrity, and transparency are unquestionably virtues in a leader; so, too, is the recognition that they are not precious resources they alone possess.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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