[September 14, 2016] My graduating class of the U.S. Infantry School in 1983 produced an exceptional group of officers. When 9/11 occurred nearly all of us were colonels and had considerable command experience; fully ready for whatever the national called upon us to do. But the one thing that our schooling failed to prepare us for was the level of personal transparency required to be a successful military officer.
Leader transparency can mean many things and it has been used far too often, too generically without definition, and leading to confusion. Some leaders restrict its use – in the context of a leader – to the processes by which decisions are made. I wrote on this very subject on several occasions to discuss how important it is to solving problems faster, building teams easier, growing networks, and increased performance (see links here and here).
For some leaders, like those in the military and in politics, transparency goes much further and delves deeply into their personal lives. Privacy is of course important and so it is with any leader; yet we find today that the more transparent a leader, the more trusted and credible they are to those who follow.
After graduation and assignment to our first duty station, my class of second lieutenants discovered that transparency meant more than a simple textbook definition. Our soldiers wanted to know about us like where we grew up, what schools we attended, our college majors, if we were married (and they wanted to see her), what sports we played, etc. Most of this was to be expected and surprisingly they wanted more.
In the military, transparency transcends any other occupation; at least I think so. For example, it was known that it took me six years to graduate from a five-year program, that I was from a family of six, that I had neck and shoulder problems, that had been a “hippie” in my early college years, and much more. The fact that I came clean on this lead to my soldiers seeing me as more human (at least I think so).
Our behavior as leaders, acting in our daily capacity and during difficult times also tested our transparency. Several of my peers were getting divorced, for example. They kept their soldiers informed as much as they could while respecting the privacy of their wives and did their best to not let such a trying time interfere in their leadership roles. One of my peer’s wife died in childbirth, another in an auto accident, and another from ovarian cancer.
Never did they think to keep their soldiers ignorant of those facts. They were open – perhaps to a fault – to those they worked with. This openness explains a lot about why my class of 1983 was so successful in the war on Islamic terrorism that followed.
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