Whatever level you lead, you’re faithfully working to help the organization function more effectively. You’re taking guidance from the next echelon, and that guidance informs your decisions and directives. You’re alright with the reality that nothing that comes across your desk is going to be absolutely perfect. And you’re no micro-manager. But as products come your way, you guide your team to refine them, to sharpen them, so the products more clearly and more precisely—and, thus, more efficiently—answer changing requirements of those inside and external to the organization that you and your team serve.
What you may fail to realize is that with every decision—about what you accept, what you reject; about what you agree with completely or disagree with completely; about what you change and how you change it—you’re telling a story to your team. People on your team, some more than others, interpret almost everything you do.
The story you’re telling is a story about your priorities and professional philosophy. It’s about your technical expertise. It’s about your ethics, and your work ethic. It’s about what you value, and your values. And the story is about what you think about your people, and all their qualities. Too much? Sorry. That’s community. That’s living and working together.
What you may fail to realize—or, in the worst cases, may realize but not really care about—is that all those decisions you make are, in one way or another, a commentary and critique of your people. Sometimes the commentary is positive for obvious reasons. Sometimes it’s negative for obvious reasons. And then there’s the grey area in which the reasons for the commentaries and critiques are not at all clear. And that’s where trouble may start.
People respond differently in those grey areas, depending on innumerable factors: how well they know you and what you’re about; their previous experiences with your criticism and the criticism of others long in their past; their sense of self and their self-confidence; the size and power of their ego; whether they’ve had coffee or a smoke yet; how things are at home. Asking for minor or major changes in a product or the way your people are doing business raises questions. Past experiences with you may serve to answer their questions: they know how you think, trust you.
But it’s too much to always depend on the trust of others to answer questions you as a leader impose on your people by way of your decisions and changes, large and small. I’m a writer. When someone changes a carefully chosen word, or strikes an entire sentence or more, I want to know why, more especially if the person doing the striking isn’t the principal for whom I work. It’s good to have people who care deeply care about the quality and integrity of their work.
But when anyone changes anything, people wonder why. It’s human nature, I guess. And if you don’t tell them, either implicitly or explicitly, they’ll figure out an answer on their own. And it might not be the right answer.
So you have to communicate with them, ensure everyone’s seeing the world from nearly the same perspective. Otherwise, when changes are imposed, even for the most legitimate and right reasons, people start wondering. Then they start imagining. And unless leaders routinely provide context for this world of changes, people start writing their own narratives. They’re compelled to put the evidence in some sort of logical order that makes sense. Then, depending on how long the communication drought lasts, they start sharing observations and interpretations, comparing and contrasting narratives. Rumors run rampant.
Transparency is the latest buzzword in leadership. And it’s a good one. Being transparent means making clear the logic of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, consistently, every day. Certainly, there are examples where complete transparency with the entire organization is neither practical nor appropriate—that’s when you draw on that store of trust—but, generally speaking, everyone should have a pretty good understanding of the decisions being made are being made, whether those decisions are about changing the structure of the organization or the quality of the products at whatever level.
Now, transparency doesn’t mean leaders have to provide a reason for every single decision every single time. Transparency means, in part, your leadership philosophy (that everyone should know because it’s been proliferated across the organization), your vision and values, your work ethic, the most current and accurate purpose and mission for the organization . . . all that and routine updates should answer most of the questions quite well if communicated properly, thoroughly, and convincingly. That’s part of the store of trust you build up.
However, without all that, and without explanation for decisions, everything can very slowly and very justifiably come unraveled.
THE PROBLEM at centcom
At the US Central Command’s Intelligence Director, things came unraveled. The core reasons as presented in the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General’s (IG’s) report are worth considering. The reasons are simple. Yet the neglect had a devastating effect on organizational trust, morale, cohesion, unity, and most everything good. In the end, 30 formal complainants and others among 120 who witnessed the CCJ2 decisions and changes were convinced that their world was being pulled down around them by malicious, unethical leadership.
Why? Even when early rumors of concerns and questions about changes and decisions apparently made their way to leadership, the leaders “did not fully grasp the extent of the belief among some analysts about distortion and their concerns,” the report reads. And then adds, “They should have.” The leaders “did not take effective action to address the concerns regarding the perceived manipulation of intelligence, and they did not take steps to inquire into them further.” Indeed, the report explains, “The lack of transparency on decisions analysts deeply cared about caused some of them to consider other, more damning reasons, for the editing or exclusion of products from the read book. . . . In the absence of feedback, facts, and explanations, many analysts attributed improper motivations for changes to the intelligence products and CCJ2 processes. They saw changes from a skeptical perspective and the concerns spread.” Like wildfire.
There are nearly 30 excellent lessons in leadership at the conclusion of the DoD IG’s nearly 200-page unclassified report. Most of the recommendations have something to do with transparency—what it is and how to achieve it, at least in that particular example. For instance, one recommendation is that “leaders should provide guidance for subordinates to raise any ethical dilemmas or suspected improprieties. Leaders should communicate this to new arrivals and periodically reinforce with their entire force. They should also consider developing anonymous means, such as email, suggestion box, or Ombudsman, for analysts to raise concerns about analytical integrity.”
That’s an example of transparency. That’s inviting transparency. It encourages transparency. And in the healthiest, most productive places, the best places to work, I think that’s the sort of thing you’ll find.