Transparency is often billed as on of the most important traits a leader can have. I mean, people like the Dalai Lama saying things like, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” How do you argue with the Dalai Lama? I assume if you tried, he might just hug you. The point being, if you were to ask any number of leaders what are the most important traits of leadership, odds are transparency would be on that list. But, I’m not convinced that transparency is the best that a leader has to offer. I’ll can take that a step further and say that I’m not even sure that transparency is the best you can offer to the community of people you’re doing life with.
When we talk about transparency there’s this idea that it means our life is completely open for others to observe and peer into. We also attach the idea of being completely honest with our thoughts, feelings, emotions and struggles. That transparency is supposed to extend to anyone who has even the slightest connection to you; if you’re a leader, that means any one that follows you. If you’re in community with others, that means everyone you “do” life with. Leaders talk about the importance of transparency in community and then try to demonstrate it by example. Unfortunately, I know enough leaders to know that transparency is often more of a pipe dream than something that is actually fully practiced. But it isn’t for not wanting to. I think people know there is a benefit to allowing others equal access to the attractive and unattractive areas of their life. The problem is that fear of being hurt or taken advantage of is stronger than the desire for openness in our relationships. The truth is that sometimes there’s no benefit to either party in allowing that type of full access. So, we tell others how important transparency is, while hiding certain areas, and pretending that you’re living a life of full disclosure. That’s not the best. At the least it creates false closeness in our relationships. At the worst, it creates unrealistic expectations, setting people (leaders especially) on pedestals. When those expectations aren’t met, or a leader fails in an area, it’s devastating. Transparency forces you to say, “Everyone has access to every part. No matter how private or hurtful.” It removes that ability to differentiate the depths of our different relationships.
So, if transparency isn’t the best, what is? I’m going to say a word that no doubt has been over used in the past ten years; Authenticity. I know, I know. You’re mind probably just flashed to some saggy-beanie wearing, Christian hipster who’s sitting in a hole-in-the-wall coffee-house, drinking his reverse-drip, syphon-separated, goat-milk, half-caff, latte and talking about how he’s seeking an authentic faith in an authentic missional community of authentic believers pursuing authentic communal living. But, it’s overuse doesn’t diminish the truth of it’s importance. I think that authenticity trumps transparency every time. Authentic is simply being real, or genuine, with others. It doesn’t try to force you to open areas that you may not be ready to open. Authentic allows you to say, “I am deeply struggling with something, but it isn’t for you to know about. Instead, it’s reserved for two other people who are helping me walk through it.” Authenticity allows you to be honest with others, while still maintaining a wise level of privacy. Authenticity allows you the ability to be really real with everyone, while allowing you the freedom to cultivate depth in a few really important relationships. Authentic allows you to be open with those people who will help you grow and avoid openness with those that would just assume tear you down.
With that said, transparency isn’t useless and shouldn’t be abandoned. In systems and structures transparency is crucial. If you tithe to a church, 100% transparency in those financial records is necessary for accountability sake. Transparency in your mission as a community is equally necessary, because people should to be able to easily perceive the motives of your group. Transparency in your leadership building process allows people to know what to expect as you work through developing them. Transparency in the context of systems provides the ability for people joining you in community to see more clearly into what they’re joining. Transparency in structures and programs works far better than it does as a trait for a person.
If I’m being completely transparent here, we’re not going to ever be completely open to everyone, nor should we be, but we can be completely real with everyone. Some people won’t understand or accept that, but those are the people who solidify the argument that it doesn’t benefit everyone for you to give unfettered access to everyone. When you shoot for authentic, you get the right amount of transparency with the right people.
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