Transparent leadership: An old concept for modern times

  • Published
  • By Col. Sean P. Larkin
  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center
We’re living in an age of hyper-connectivity. With sensors everywhere and supercomputers in our pockets, there’s a wealth of information available to everyone, whether it’s a review of a restaurant, an updated Air Force instruction or the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow (African or European). There are unofficial forums and social media groups devoted to nearly everything – including the Air Force. Further, your words and actions can live on indefinitely on the internet. Nothing stays in Vegas. Now, more than ever, to quote Gen. George S. Patton, “You are always on parade.”

The combination of instant information, rapid social interaction and recorded behavior has changed the environment and expectations for leaders. Our Airmen expect and deserve leaders whose actions match their words and whose decision-making is open, fair and consistent.

While discretion and the safeguarding of sensitive, classified and personal data remain critical responsibilities of military professionals, the fact remains that any gap between what you say and what you do will be exposed, one way or another. But there is no reason to fear such scrutiny; in fact, we must embrace transparency to lead in the 21st century.

Transparency is not a novel concept. Political scientists, journalists and policy advocates have been touting its importance for more than a century. In 1913, Louis Brandeis, who would go on to serve as a justice U.S. Supreme Court, famously referred to sunlight (transparency) as “the best disinfectant.” An organization that maintains open records, encourages honest dialogue, and is accountable for its actions is less likely to violate the public trust.

The benefits of transparency go beyond our external relationships, to the heart of our organizations. Open, honest and consistent leaders will develop trust, strengthen relationships and bolster our core values.

For example, as a commander, I have to make tough decisions on personnel matters, strategic priorities, resources and mission execution. I trust my team to provide the best available information and their recommendations to inform those decisions. While I could technically make decisions without seeking such advice, involving the right subordinates and stakeholders in a transparent decision-making process is essential to leading effectively and building organizational trust.

Transparency helps establish this trust over time and strengthens critical relationships when your Airmen and your mission partners can see how your actions match your stated priorities and vision. Openness also allows your Airmen to understand how and why decisions are made, even if they disagree with a particular outcome. This transparency encourages collaborative decision-making, empowers our Airmen and fosters the professional development of all stakeholders, which ultimately strengthens the organization.

Finally, transparency can reinforce and uphold the Air Force core values. I believe in these values and wholeheartedly believe we need to serve with integrity, service and excellence, every day. When your leadership style is transparent and collaborative, it is easier to model and enforce the ethical behavior we expect from everyone in the Department of Defense. Additionally, an open environment with high standards of personal conduct reinforces positive norms and discourages behavior that violates our values.

What we say is important, but our actions are what really speak to our Airmen. Leading with transparency creates strong, accountable organizations built on trust and guided by the Air Force core values. So, let some sunlight into your leadership style -- it is a great day for a parade.