I have been in leadership for many years now and there are many lessons that I’ve learned over that time. How to handle change, how to communicate tough things, how to analyze processes and improve them, how to motivate different types of people, and the list goes on and on. But there is one lesson that has been on my mind a lot lately and I have been wanting to share on here for some time.
Leaders MUST keep secrets.
Now, I’m not talking about the kind of secrets that hurt the organization or, when found out, means the loss of trust or ability to lead. But, there are secrets that leaders must keep because, by keeping them, it leads the organization towards a level of unity and success that wouldn’t otherwise be achieved.
When I was the president of a small college in Indiana, there were often initiatives and changes that would come from those in higher positions of leadership than my own. I would be tasked with communicating these things to the faculty and staff at my campus. There were times when I didn’t agree with the initiative or change. But, I had to keep that a secret from my staff. I could voice that to my supervisor, but not to my staff. If I didn’t keep it a secret that I disagreed with the direction, then I would communicate to my team that it’s ok to not be in alignment with the company. So, instead, as a leader it was imperative that I communicated these things as if they were my own – or else I would be sabotaging any potential success the initiative or change had.
Another secret that I’ve found myself keeping as a leader revolves around employee disciplinary issues and terminations. Often other employees get one side of the story and as a leader I’m not able to state my side of the story. I remember an employee that I had to terminate who was quite likeable. She was someone who got along with everyone and I had no issues with her personally. However, she regularly missed deadlines, struggled to accomplish goals, and had employees who worked for her that complained she never communicated things to them. On top of this, she was someone who I worked with for many months to help her improve her performance – I invested in her personally, sent her to training, and brought people in who were doing it well to spend some one-on-one time with her. None of these things made a difference and I was put in a place where termination was the only option. Of course, the other employees only knew that she was a nice person. They didn’t know the rest of the story…and they shouldn’t have. But, I’m sure you can imagine the things that were said about the situation and me in particular.
One final secret that leaders keep often is the details around tough decisions. Often, leaders must make tough decisions – cutting or changing benefits, closing a division, downsizing, etc. And, these tough decisions often have no option that will be well-received by everyone across the organization, both inside and out. These are the types of decision where someone will be impacted in a negative way regardless of the decision made. In these moments, I have been accused of playing favorites, being only concerned about the bottom line, having selfish motives, and not fully exhausting all options…just to name a few. The truth about tough decisions by leaders is that it is often true that the leader has had many sleepless nights agonizing over these decisions. The leader, in fact, rarely takes these decisions lightly and if others could have the perspective of all that was done to arrive at the decision – they would understand the difficulty in making the decision. But, we must keep it a secret.
All of these secrets have a common thread – that there’s always more to the story than what one can interpret on the surface. There’s always a second side to the story, more going on than what’s able to be communicated, and feelings and emotions that are included in decisions than the leader can show or communicate.
So, for those that follow a leader: give them grace and the benefit of the doubt.
For those that are the leader: stay strong and understand that these types of secrets are good for the organization. …and I understand.
Leaders, which secrets have you had to keep? What are the decisions you’ve made where you wish you could tell the whole story rather than facing the assumptions and accusations? Comment below and let us know!