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To Be or Not To Be . . . Transparent

There is one topic in the book I authored, Dare to Serve, that gets a disproportionate number of comments. It is the section where I tell the readers that I was summarily fired from my position as President, Chief Concept Officer of KFC in the fall of 2003. Readers tell me that they appreciate my candor about this matter – as most would have avoided the topic.

The inclination to “smooth things over” or to avoid the difficult subjects seems to be the norm among high profile leaders today. Our newspapers are full of stories about cover-ups and questions left unanswered by global leaders

This whole conversation around transparency is interesting to me. There are many leadership pundits who say transparency builds trust and is a trait of high performing leaders. So why is it so difficult to be transparent about a rough spot in your career? Or for that matter, why is it so rare to be transparent about a difficult stage of your life?

A look in the mirror. . .

The first challenge of transparency – it requires us to be honest with ourselves. This may be the hardest step: admitting to ourselves that we have made a mistake, that we have failed, that we have fallen short of expectations. Often we blame others and make excuses for the things we don’t want to explain.

When I was fired from my job, people said awkward things like “it was a parting of the ways” or “the parting was mutual.” Hogwash, as my grandma would say. I was fired from my job because the performance results of the company fell short. Yes, it was a painful realization. Yes, it was a hugely disappointing outcome. And yes, it was embarrassing.

But it has served me well to be brutally honest about it. It helped me to acknowledge reality and own the outcome. It helped me to share it openly with others, even when uncomfortable. And today, it makes me a more credible leader – because this one “failure” has refined my entire approach to leadership – and that has led to successful performance results at Popeyes.

Be honest with yourself.

A look in the eyes of others . . .

The second challenge of transparency – it requires us to set aside the judgment and opinions of other people. If we are brutally honest about this, we would have to admit that we care way too much about what others think of us. We want them to think we have it all together. We want them to think we are successful. We want them to think only good thoughts. We dread criticism.

When we think back on our careers, we remember every harsh comment about our leadership, as if it were carved in a marble plaque. We remember very few of the accolades we have received.

Transparency requires us to stop worrying about what other people think. It took me a very long time to get to this viewpoint. But I eventually concluded that it was hopeless to measure the value of my life and leadership by what others said about me.

My suggestion is that you decide now whose opinion matters – and live only to please them. Perhaps that would be your parents. Perhaps your spouse or children. Perhaps your God.

Please only a few people. Be transparent with all the rest.

A look at the future . . .

The last challenge of transparency – without it, we cannot prepare the next generation leaders. The next generation must see that we had challenges, that we overcame obstacles, and that we took risks and failed. It was not a straight shot to success. To say otherwise is to set leaders up for unrealistic expectations – and most certainly, disappointment.

When I tell people that I have been fired, when I tell them that I am a cancer survivor, when I tell them that I struggle with anxiety – I become a more valuable teacher and coach. Without these challenges, I would be far less effective in my job. Without these true stories, I would not be viewed as a real, authentic person by the organization. And finally, I would have little to share with future leaders to help them avoid the pitfalls and overcome the challenges.

My suggestion is that you see your troubles in life and work as preparation – so that you have something to offer those that come after you. You can be a role model of authenticity – ready to offer grace and help when the next generation leader hits a rough spot.

Transparency begins with a look in the mirror.

Transparency lets go of “what other people think.”

Transparency helps prepare future leaders for the realities of leadership.

Will you demonstrate transparency today in your leadership?

If you do, you will serve the people well.

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