The Downside of ‘Open’ Leadership

‘Open leadership’ is generally understood to be where a leader is open, transparent and authentic. As an alternative to ‘closed’ leadership, i.e. closed and secretive, ‘open leadership’ holds great appeal and is held up a goal to aspire towards for many organisations.

Nevertheless, as with any default leadership behaviour is carries a downside that can be as damaging as its ‘closed’ alternative.

 I’ll attempt to explore these through three different stories and conclude with one that ties them all together.

The first of these relates to our youngest son. At the age of 18 he set off to New Zealand to fulfil his childhood dream of playing rugby in ‘All Black’ country.

On his arrival we had frequent Skype calls with him where he shared his feelings of homesickness. After each of these calls we would be worried and these worries would continue through to the next time we spoke to him.

On our next call we would ask him how he was and invariably he would say that he went out the evening of our previous call, made new friends and was feeling good.

My point being that we absorbed his pain, it stayed with us, yet he had moved on very quickly leaving us with the burden.

I know that this is just part of parenthood but it still shows how sharing negative information, no matter how authentically, can generate fears and concerns that are really transient and over which you have no control.

The second story relates to a time when I was a Director of Education. Having been charged with making a £12 million reduction in our total budget I embarked upon a series of roadshows to schools within our area. I presented all of the information, the reasons for the savings, and the alternatives we were exploring.

This exercise was very comprehensive yet on reflection it was an unnecessary, unproductive and, ultimately, damaging exercise.

For when it came to the actual decision to make cuts to budgets the political ramifications were too serious and none of the worst-case scenarios came to pass.

What I learned was that despite the urge to be honest and transparent the ‘open’ leader can generate anxiety and discord when it might have been more astute to hold the information until things were more certain.

The third story concerns a boss I used to work for who shared everything with me about the challenges he faced with his senior colleagues and governing body. On a daily basis he would tell me that he was about to resign, apply for another job, or simply throw everything up in the air.

At the time I had a number of long term strategic tasks to complete that required me to motivate and sustain the confidence of a large number of staff. I understand that my boss trusted me but at the very same time of unburdening himself to me he was undermining my capacity to do my own job to the best of my ability as I feared that everything I was doing was inherently temporary and unstable.

So what have these three stories got in common?

Albeit that each is very different they all centre upon the willingness of the individual to share negative information with others – when the information is anything but certain. The motivation is different in each case: for my son it was an outcome of his own situation far from home; for the sharing of budget data, it was done with the best of intentions; and lastly, my boss just needed to sound off to someone.

The final story that ties these together concerns a Tuesday evening in the Scottish Borders.

It had been a dark, miserable day and anything that could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. I was three months into my first Deputy Headteacher post and the Headteacher had taken ill and was in hospital. So here I was as acting Headteacher dealing with a range of situations that were completely new to me.

After getting through the day I was sitting at my office desk, not quite with my head in my hands – but not far off it – when a teacher knocked on the door and made the mistake of asking how I was.

And so I shared some of my concerns, especially the fact that people just kept ‘dumping’ problems on me – the joys of leadership I hear you say.

However, rather than sympathising with me this wise individual shared a truth which I now hold to be self-evident.

That truth was that leadership occasionally requires you absorb other people’s pain rather than amplifying and passing it on.

He referred me to an ancient principle of leadership, that permeates almost every ancient religion, whereby the leader bares his back and accepts the blows on behalf of those whom he leads (apologies for the gender bias here but ancient religious leaders were almost exclusively of the male variety).

In modern parlance some information – personal, organisational, strategic – is not necessarily something that is appropriate to share. The alternative to the ‘open’ default is to hold the pain internally in order to protect and enable others to properly fulfil their respective roles.

Once again in the dilemma of ‘wise’ leadership the leader has a judgement to make – to be ‘open’ or ‘closed’ on the matter in hand.

Ultimately, the ‘wise’ leader is not trapped by an orthodoxy to always tend to openness and transparency – particularly if the judgement is that the sharing of the news will have a detrimental effect upon other people.

The challenge facing leaders is to escape from the idea of styles of leadership and make appropriate judgements according to context; sometimes ‘closed’ leadership is just the better choice (regardless of how much it seems to go against the grain).

So, the next time you are faced with dealing with a difficult situation – pause a moment; take a breath; consider the options – and perhaps, just perhaps, think about absorbing the pain rather than immediately sliding into the populist trap of sharing the information or how you feel about it.

Finally, every great leader I’ve ever known has someone, somewhere, with whom they can share the burden. It might their life partner; their mentor; or their best friend but to continually pack things away into your own ‘black bag’ without occasionally clearing it out has dangerous implications for one’s health and well-being.