WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency


This campaign may have been an effective strategy to achieve organisational change, which was the manager’s brief. What is beyond question is that it was not especially efficient:

“Yes, it can be damaging and time consuming… I very nearly had enough of it. Just couldn’t be bothered with fighting any more. So there are times when it becomes a very negative thing. But I believe the outcome will be positive for the organization. I’ve not sat down and worked it out on paper, but there is a cost-benefit here.”

If he did sit down and work it out properly, he might come to different conclusion. I doubt whether this long campaign, with all its costs and implications, is really more beneficial than highlighting the salesman’s opposition to change, and getting the company’s leadership to tackle the issue.

I’ll concede that I have met more than one sponsor who would run a mile if asked to have the ‘difficult conversation’ with the company’s leading salesman. But in the end, this long covert campaign – even if apparently successful – must be a less satisfactory strategy than encouraging the company’s leadership to lead.

The costs of this covert approach are not all immediately apparent. One unintended casualty is organisational culture: the manager’s colleagues see a covert campaign conducted, and they see it ultimately succeed. They are likely to conclude that they should follow suit if confronted with similar challenges.

9. Change Leadership’s Challenge

Do we really want our organisations to embrace this type of covert campaigning as part of ‘the way we do things around here’?

Ironically, there are many organisations that publicly espouse openness, honesty and transparency and which have a very active shadow life, full of covert deals and political in-fighting.

As change leaders we need to ask ourselves whether we want to help perpetuate this duality. Do we want to be experts in orchestrating perception, in protecting sponsors from embarrassment, or do we aspire to something more?

My own view is that change leaders, managers and (especially) consultants  have become over-focused on managing stakeholder perceptions and not focused enough on challenging the rules of the game. As Sir David Manning put it, ambassadors should strive to:

“Speak the truth to power”

Can there be a better rallying cry for change leaders?

4 thoughts on “WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

  1. Insightful – one thing that occurs to me is that the multitude of communication media available to us all make it incredibly easy to avoid ‘difficult’ or ‘honest’ conversations. So we email, text or IM, in fact anything to avoid a productive duplex conversation. IMHO we are getting worse, not better, at leadership and communication.

    As for Wikileaks we now know that some people thought (amongst other startling revelations) that George Osborne and David Cameron were inexperienced…. no shit sherlock. As the author says – there is nothing remotely earth shattering here – just some one who doesnt want to play the game and no, remarkably, is branded a sex pest. Well I never

    1. Rich – I endorse your comments.

      Your perspective on communications and technology is especially interesting. So-called enabling technology (everything from email to groupware & social media) has exponentially increased our ability to fire off vast volumes of often very abbreviated and ambiguous messages. Like mortar shells, we only have a very approximate idea of what happens when they land.

      We have been seduced into thinking that this = communication. It doesn’t: we’ve lost the ability to identify instances where nuance and subtlety require face-to-face, or at least verbal, interaction. And for those of us who regard these modes of communication as a chore (sadly, this includes too many people in leadership positions) it has provided a ready made excuse to actually avoid interaction.

      I will be posting a longer comment on technology & communication in the next few days.

      Thanks very much for your feedback.

      spincop

  2. Attack is the best defence. The US Govt has only itself to blame. It circulated these cables to a distribution list of 3 million, it is claimed. It also prior argued that full transparency makes government accountable. What did it expect? Now it has egg on its face. It reminds me of organisations that create awful internal bureaucracies and then blame the government for imposing bureaucracy, hoping to divert responsibility elsewhere. This is shadow-side behaviour. Leaders need to rise above these word games and examine what they are doing in the first place that gives rise to them. By exercising crude power (e.g. on companies to boycott Wikileaks) makes you look less powerful. As Gordon Brown’s memoir says, the more powerful Fred Goodwin became the more he complained and undermined his power.

    1. Appreciated Bill – I find myself in warm agreement with your stance.

      I am increasingly impatient with organisational posturing and pretence around transparency, openness and honesty (and indeed other ubiquitously quoted, inherently ‘good’ values).

      This pretence can be seen in public and private organisations, from national governments to global corporations. These motherhood values are advertised as being part of the organization’s DNA. When someone applies the values too literally however (and exposes a little hypocrisy, for example) the organization’s reaction is to pull the iron fist from the velvet glove and attempt to crush the ‘dissident’.

      Before someone accuses me of being a ‘bleeding heart’, I’m reconciled to iron fist-type organizations being successful and even necessary in some contexts. What I cannot be reconciled to is the systematic cloaking of intentions and the careful disguising of true organizational character.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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