Effective Leadership

Why Is It So Hard for Some Leaders to Be Open and Honest?

Diverse group of 3 business people, man and woman shaking hands whilst associate woman smiles. Article about open and honest leadership.

The importance of true honesty and integrity in leadership:

Every organisation regardless of size, sector or competitive position in the marketplace has a set of value statements. These values always include openness, honesty and integrity.

The idea is that organisations look to their leaders and employees to embody these values and display these attributes in their everyday behaviour. If you are open and honest as a leader you will build followership and loyalty amongst your peers and employees.

Here though is an interesting phenomenon. Leaders do not necessarily like to give tough messages or communicate information that can create potential conflict or unrest. This is true of many of us. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, or we may lack the courage to deal with feelings, particularly messy ones.

A case in point, an extreme one, but nonetheless powerful. One of my clients, now a retired CEO ran his organisation whereby like all organisations from time to time there was a need to terminate employees. These terminations were either performance based or as a result of not making plan. What was unusual on this leader’s part was that after the employees were terminated, guilt set in and they all would be hired. On the surface this appeared benevolent. This gesture however, paved the way for a culture that was skittish, with a lack of confidence and trust in the leadership. Not just the CEOs, but the entire executive team.

All employees regardless of tenure or seniority deserves communication that is direct and transparent. You should never underestimate the intelligence of those you work with. Leaders who avoid difficult conversations fail to realise that by not speaking the truth, they are speaking volumes. Employees soon figure out that everything is not okay, but unlikely understand or appreciate the prevailing concerns.

Do employees not deserve the right to know?

Every employee I have ever worked with has always conveyed that although receiving tough messages is hard, they admire leaders who are up front. It creates an opportunity to either defend your point of view or to course correct. It clears the air and allows for continued fruitful dialogue and more robust solution’s.

When leaders don’t encourage open communication they have seriously short changed the success of their mandate. Even more concerning is an absence of trust and lack of collaboration becomes the defining culture. The enterprise is then handicapped and will unlikely perform at it’s optimum.

Organisations have an obligation to both their employees and shareholders to foster courageous conversations. Leaders sometimes forget the power they have as role models. You as a leader would expect nothing less from your own boss.

If you don’t have just in time hard conversations then you haven’t learned to play the long game. And if you miss out on the long game rest assured you will have retention challenges. Everybody votes with their feet. True leadership means leading with your guts, not just your head and your heart.

About the author

Cindy Wahler

Cindy Wahler

A Psychologist and expert in human behavior, Dr. Wahler's former leadership consultancy clients include British Telecom, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, and the Royal Bank of Canada to name a few. Dr. Wahler is also a regular contributor to Forbes, Huffington Post and Chief Executive Officer.