Leadership And Confidentiality
Leaders are role models. In fact, serving as a role model is one of the most important roles leaders can play. Team members, colleagues and customers look to leaders to role model the values that organizations, departments and divisions articulate orally and frequently post on office walls and on web sites.
One of those critical values is confidentiality.
All leaders are privy to information from time to time which they are asked to keep confidential. Similarly, sometimes we as leaders share information with a trusted teammate which we request be kept confidential.
I have been on both sides of this equation many times over the years and I have learned the importance of maintaining confidentiality. Similarly, I have been disheartened and frustrated numerous times when people with whom I worked or volunteered have not adhered to my request to keep something confidential.
I learned the hard way through the decades that the preferred path is to keep as few items confidential as possible. When we as leaders minimize our requests to keep things confidential, we also minimize the risk of being disappointed in other people’s inability or unwillingness to maintain that cone of silence.
That’s why I strived as a leader to keep very few matters confidential. During my 32 years leading the Georgetown Law Continuing Legal Education Department, I tried to keep only two kinds of information confidential:
-Sensitive university or law school information that had been shared with me on a confidential basis by a dean, department head or colleague
-Salary information for members of my team or other law school administrators
I shared all other information and data with my teammates because I realized how much people value transparency. As I have written here previously, most colleagues want to always know two things: what’s going on and why it’s going on.
If we can be honest and open about these two elements as much as possible, our teammates will appreciate our efforts and will strive more diligently to handle their parts of the operation.
I was reminded of the importance of confidentiality this week after returning from vacation. One afternoon I and other board members of a non-profit for which I volunteer received a plaintive email from one of the organization’s leaders.
The leader discovered that information he had shared with the board members in an executive session and which he had requested be kept confidential had been shared with a person who had not been present at that meeting.
When I received and read this email, I was frustrated, disappointed and angry. As a volunteer leader for many organizations over the years, I know how breaches of confidentiality can lead to myriad problems:
-A chilling effect is created and people become less willing to share information with others
-People wonder who could have breached the confidentiality that had been requested and it can cause a major distraction
-Morale can take a nosedive, which can have a deleterious impact on the entire organization
-Most importantly, trust is reduced between and among people, and a reduction of trust can have a long-lasting adverse impact on any organization, regardless of its size
Sometimes breaches of confidentiality happen in an unintentional manner. Perhaps a board member shares a piece of information with his or her spouse, assuming the other person will keep it confidential. Maybe the specific request is made to keep it confidential. Husbands and wives, or anyone in a committed intimate relationship, trust their significant others to keep things confidential. Then, perhaps a week or two later, that significant other indirectly shares the information with a best friend, asking him or her to keep it confidential.
The best approach to these situations is simple: when asked to keep items confidential, we ought to do just that, and not share the information with anyone, including our significant others.
When we do this, we do not have to worry about someone else within our orbit sharing the confidential information with a third person, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Maintaining confidentiality when we are asked to do so will help us achieve one paramount goal, a goal that buttresses our leadership stature: the strengthening of our reputation for being trustworthy.
In leadership, nothing is more critical than our ability to earn trust and demonstrate trustworthiness, so, when you are asked, please strive to always keep confidential items confidential .