I remember the night I first chose to be an open leader. At the time, I was the chief operating officer at Delta Air Lines. I was tasked with leading the airline through a painful bankruptcy restructuring.

The day the company filed for bankruptcy was horrible for every member of the Delta family. For me, it was also a crazy day of press interviews, calls and meetings. At some point, I was asked if I would be willing to stop by the break room at Atlanta's airport that night to meet with the night-shift line mechanics. Our turnaround plan included significant changes to the maintenance team, including pay and benefit cuts. I knew that all of those employees would be negatively impacted.

Without much of a thought, I said, "sure" - suddenly realizing I hadn't planned what I would say. This wasn't a pre-planned, pre-scripted event. As I walked in, I saw a couple hundred people gathered and waiting for me. I decided the best thing to do was to be open and candid. I told them how the bankruptcy would impact them and that I was sorry. But I also let them know that they were a critical part of our plan to revive the airline. Management may have failed them, but we had a plan to fix the problems. I talked in-depth, sharing the same plan I had presented to our bankers and advisors. I shared details about network and fleet concepts that may have seemed arcane, but I thought it was important for everyone to understand how their individual sacrifices fit into the larger plan.

When I finished talking, everyone seemed stunned and the room was quiet. Then, hands started popping up; they had questions - lots of them! It struck me that the questions were not about pay cuts or benefits changes. Rather, they asked insightful and detailed questions about the turnaround plan itself. They were truly interested in how the plan would work and how they could play a role in its success.

Word spread internally about my candor and I received requests to share it with groups of hundreds of people across the company. At Delta, these talks eventually became known as the "Velvet Rope Tour." Employees were pleased that the company respected them enough to share details about our vision for Delta's future and the reasoning behind decisions. Rather than scare people away by sharing bad news, we actually saw a substantial jump in employee engagement. That gave our turnaround efforts a huge boost.

Skipping ahead a few years, I was walking through Atlanta's international terminal when I was approached by some Delta mechanics. They mentioned the speech I gave the night of the bankruptcy news. They shook my hand and thanked me for laying out the plan and explaining how they could play a role in Delta's turnaround. Hearing the impact my words made that night was incredibly gratifying and is something that will always stay with me.

The power of that experience is why I continue to choose to be an open leader in my role as president and CEO of Red Hat. Everyone wants to know that their work is making a difference. They want to understand how their work fits in the organization's strategy. My Delta experience taught me that people are willing to make substantial personal sacrifices if they believe they are part of a broader plan for success. Leaders often overestimate how much people know about the strategic direction of their organizations, especially when they are run on a top-down, "need to know basis." When you embrace the idea of open leadership, you can tap into a profound energy source inside your team that is capable of amazing things.

To embrace open leadership, I have three pieces of advice:

  1. Face the music: Bad news is better accepted when delivered in-person. Be open and honest - don't "sugar coat" bad news.
  2. Give context: People want to know the whats and whys of their company's direction and they want to be part of making it successful.
  3. Be accessible: When you answer questions, admit mistakes and apologize when you err, you build your credibility and authority to lead.


The good news is that taking these steps to becoming an open leader doesn't require a company-wide mandate to get started. Any leader, in any company and in any function can make the choice to lead openly. When that happens, you help supply the fuel your organization needs to propel itself to new levels of performance.