Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman and James O’Toole

This thoughtful book would be of special interest to leaders who are struggling with the ethics and risks of “speaking truth to power.”  It also provides motivation from highly credible experts for leading in a way that models transparency even when that’s very hard to do.  The authors argue that openness leads to positive social change as well as long-term business success.  Not only is transparency ethical, it’s good for the bottom line.  A short read of under 150 pages, this book is more philosophical and less “how-to.”

Some key ideas from the book:

  • “Even as many heads of corporations and even of states boast about their commitment to transparency, the containment of truth continues to be a dearly held value in many organizations.”
  • It is the morals and character of leaders that can make our institutions open and healthy.  No amount of law-making can do that.  “Openness happens only when leaders insist on it.”
  • People hoard information in part because it’s human to want to know things that other people do not.
  • It’s a myth that making a bad decision is better than not making any decision.  “Instead of mythologizing the leader who acts quickly or on hunches, we should cultivate leaders who are not afraid to be labeled wishy-washy when prudent caution and additional study are called for.”
  • Competition can be raised to a level where ethics start to break down.
  • Organizations can be like families in their silence about the painful truth of what’s really going on.  People fear they will “destroy the family,” this is one reason they keep secrets.
  •  “The best way for leaders to start information flowing freely in their organizations is to set a good example.”
  • The way leaders respond to being challenged by others (do they welcome others challenging them?  Do they punish others for challenging them?) sets the tone for whether or not people will be open.
  • “In fact, trust is the most elusive and fragile aspect of leadership.”
  • “…trust must be earned over time through the accretion of positive acts and cannot be created with the wave of the executive hand in a time of crisis.  In essence, trust is hard to earn, easy to lose, and, once lost, nearly impossible to regain.”
  • It would be too simple to say that we just need to tell the truth in every situation.  In some cases inappropriate or careless telling of the truth can be destructive.  “In fact, great unintentional harm can be done when speaking truthfully.”
  • Listening is a vital leadership skill
  • “We want to be confident that our leaders are telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in matters that involve our national security, the safety of the products we use, and the state of our economy.” … “Despite the promise of transparency on so many lips, we often have the sinking feeling that we are not being told all that we need to know or have the right to know.”

I would recommend this book for leaders who want to be more transparent or who face the daunting task of speaking the truth to power.  The book points out the real risks involved, but it also provides encouragement to take the high road.