We Have To Change the Way We Think, Lead and Respond in a Growing Age of Transparency

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Over the December/January period there has been a great deal of discussion and chatter about leading in an age of transparency, with good reason.

We have seen the global impact on Volkswagen and their continuing saga over falsifying emission tests. Closer to home, in the past week, we have seen the impact of what happens when a the captain of a top sports team in Sydney over-indulges on alcohol during Australia Day celebrations – the video went viral creating a nightmare situation for the club’s leadership group and probably ruining the career of a top athlete .

As far back as 2010 we began to recognise that with projected growth in the collection of data and increasing use of digital communication forms leaders would have to take greater responsibilities for “externalities “ – those impacts that your organisation has on society .

In 2010, writing in the Harvard Review, Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby (Meyer, C., & Kirby, J. (2010) Leadership in the Age of Transparency Harvard Business Review 1-9) claimed “companies and their leaders had to adopt a very different stance thanks to growing industrial scale, better sensors, and heightened sensibilities. Increasingly, business impacts (actions and behaviour) are laid at companies’ doorsteps”. We can’t say we were not warned.

Five years later in the most recent MIT Sloan Management Review (Winter 2016 Volume 57 Number 2) the transparency issue is raised again thanks to social media and the myriad of data being gathered along with the ability for both to be used to generate comment and controversy. The view of the article’s authors Robert D. Austin and David M. Upton is “most business leaders have not yet come to grips with the new reality and what it means for their organisations.” We agree based on our interactions with a range of senior leaders.

Austin and Upton contend that given there is some much data and so many channel options to disseminate this data that it behaves like water. Simply, what starts out as a splash, can very quickly turn to a puddle and then into a flood. Leaders need to know how to lead in the growing demand for transparency.

Here are five key points they make that we think are worthy of very careful consideration by leaders for this age that is now upon us:

  • Carefully examine existing assumptions you are making as a leader about how information is stored and contained in your organisation.
  • Undertake careful analysis to track sensitive information or issues that would be problematic if they were inappropriately revealed.
  • Review and ensure you have a clearly defined way of dealing with any unintended behaviour or actions.
  • Assume others will put out information about your organisation for their own reasons and that you will not be able to prevent it.
  • Recognise that as new information flows it changes people’s perceptions and therefore their reality about your organisation.

The volume of data being generated is unlikely to decrease, and the channels for it to reach both intended and unintended audiences will continue to grow. As leaders we hope our organisations are not ‘wrong footed’, however Austin and Upton conclude that it is unlikely in this day and age that any leader can be ready for every challenge and unintended consequences, nonetheless we’ll be better off if we start preparing now.


Vivente Australia enables leaders and managers to create the conditions that allow their people to do their best work every day thus creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its outcomes.

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