Roger Parrott: Transparency and secret-keeping

Build a culture of transparency while keeping confidences.

WikiLeaks shocked the world with its shared secrets. The world expressed outrage, and then ran to their computers to read them.

Secrets leak because they are useful, powerful, or entertaining -- and they appeal to the pull of our sinful nature. The ease of sharing secrets in the social-media era should be a reminder to Christian leaders of a timeless ground rule of life: there are no secrets.

Don’t share what you don’t want public.

Unless you’re absolutely positive of someone else’s trust, don’t tell what you don’t expect to become public. Enjoy learning to lead by sharing openly within your ministry, because whatever you’re trying to keep secret is likely to be found out anyway.

· Consider the end of “Best kept secret in Washington” -- the identity of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate source--that came to light after 27 years when FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt admitted he was “Deep Throat.”

· Consider the stories of Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, Mark McGuire, Tom DeLay, Mark Samford, Floyd Landis, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, . . . this list is endless.

· Consider the Christian leaders who assumed their ongoing moral failings were safely locked away. Before losing his pulpit Ted Haggard wrote in his book “Letters from Home,” “Everything in your life is public . . . Everything you say, everything you do, everyplace you go, every thought you think is going to be known by all.”

· Consider the fall-out of a misdirected confidential e-mail. There is no computer program, system, or structure will keep the information technology staff of your ministry locked out of your PERSONAL e-mail.

You can’t go wrong with the assumption that everything you share with someone in private will become known. Like a buried seed pushing through the darkness toward the sun, it may take months, weeks, or even years, but eventually the secret will be exposed.

Building a culture of transparency accelerates trust.

 

Too many leaders spend a ton of energy worrying about the leaks in their ministry (which of course only creates more layers of “secrets”). Effective leaders learn to work in the open and are not stingy with information, sharing whatever is not to be held confidential for the protection of others.

Leaders might as well learn to create an environment of openness. Transparent leaders look for ways to tell all those in their care as much as the inner circle knows. They tell it ahead of the questions and give the details. Transparency dramatically escalates trust.

Are there risks? Sure. You’ll get some hard questions, sometimes you won’t have a good answer, you may get caught flat footed, and of course there are times you can’t tell the full story because of confidences. But especially in these times, others will trust you more because they have watched your long-term pattern of transparency.

Leaders must learn to keep confidences.

 

Three preachers were on a fishing trip had to pass the time. One preacher said he thought it would be nice if they confessed their biggest sins to each other and then prayed for each other.

The first preacher said that his biggest sin was that he liked to sit at the beach now and then and watch pretty women stroll by. The second preacher confessed that he went to the horse track every so often and wagered small bets. The third preacher, with a grin, said, “My biggest sin is gossiping.”

If you can’t keep secrets, get out of the leadership business. Good leaders can’t go wrong by learning a life-long pattern of keeping appropriate secrets. The list of items that should be kept confidential is fairly short, but it is vital to hold to it tightly:

1. Personal salaries and compensation

2. Non-actionable ambiguities that would only create fear or confusion if shared prematurely

3. Individual shortcomings and failures that would embarrass others

4. Discussions you’ve been asked to hold in confidence

The best lawyers will never tell a secret, because they would lose their license. Shouldn’t the same standard hold for Christian leaders?

Here is a little secret -- every time you tell a secret about someone else, the person you are telling it to assumes you’ve told one on them.

Roger Parrott is President of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders (David C. Cook).