Just how open can a leader be?

Theresa May is under pressure, not just from the Opposition but from some of her own backbenchers, to reveal details of her negotiating position on Brexit. Although rarely as important as leaving the EU is, most leaders have the face the same conundrum, walking the difficult tightrope between being open and straightforward to those they lead, and needing to maintain some secrecy over critical issues. A CEO engaged in takeover talks or a team leader aware that some redundancies are being planned are both faced with the tension between honesty and openness, on the one hand, and the need to keep it secret on the other. How do effective leaders deal with this?

The most important thing all leaders need to recognise is that they rely on trust to function effectively, and trust depends on three key components:

  1. competence – doing their job well
  2. benevolence – consulting people and treating them fairly and with concern for their welfare
  3. integrity – being honest and consistent in their communications and decisions.

It’s the third of these – integrity – which is primarily at stake here. Being open with the people you lead is certainly part of benevolence, as it is necessary to be truly consultative, and it shows competence, by recognising that you need people’s support for what you do. But openness is primarily part of showing integrity; people with integrity say what they are going to do, and then do it. The trouble is, there are situations (and negotiating deals with others is a prime example) where you have to keep your cards close to your chest and not reveal your hand. It is probable that David Cameron’s negotiating position with the EU was harmed irrevocably by his laying down his desired outcomes so openly, making them the starting point for negotiation rather than the desired end state.  If you want an inch you need to start by asking for a yard!

How to square this circle? By being open about your need to keep some areas off limits for revelation and instead discuss the absolutely critical principles that will guide you in in your behaviour (including any negotiations) – the more you say, the greater a hostage to fortune you make yourself. Instead, focus on those key principles and be prepared to debate them with those you lead, defending your position and listening to your critics. Be ready to change them if the arguments are convincing for you (you do really have to believe them if you want to behave with integrity, as they shape your thinking as well as your behaviour), but also stand by them if you believe they are right. People don’t have to share your principles in their entirety for them them to trust you, as a leader.