It was quite the firestorm last month.

I'd use a different term but we're in polite company.

My article on things smart leaders shouldn't say to their staff hit a nerve with readers, and not in a good way. It erupted into full-blown personal attacks, mostly through Facebook comments. People used terms like "old school" to describe my viewpoints. They became volatile. A few seemed to be on the warpath.

Now, I've had a few articles lead to serious misunderstandings before. In some cases, I suspect the commenters on Facebook only read the main subheads that listed the phrases to avoid and didn't dive into my explanation for why these phrases can ruin employee morale. However, I believe there is a deeper root cause for the backlash.

For years, we've heard about the idea of transparent leadership-being upfront and honest with your staff about the challenges of starting and running a company. It's obvious a few people have taken the advice about openness to heart. It's also possible the idea of being transparent in leadership could lead to some serious management issues.

Let me explain. There is some confusion about how to be open and honest in leadership. There is an "old school" model that says you are the only one who should know about difficult financial issues, that you are paid the "big bucks" for the "sleepless nights" and you should be the only one who has to worry about strategy and direction. This create a leadership model that is too isolated, too insular, and too ineffective.

Yet, there is a "new school" model of transparency that could be easily misinterpreted in a way that was never intended. You can share so much about future plans, financial difficulties, and concerns about the economy that you destroy morale.

Think of the entrepreneur who arrives at work and immediately starts complaining about the competition. The mobile app across town just scored a big funding round. The social media startup just hired a brilliant data scientist. OK. It's a challenge. The good model of transparent leadership says it is OK to let your staff know about these difficulties. The bad model of transparency is where you talk constantly about challenges and thereby create an atmosphere of incompetence, confusion, and distrust.

Being honest and open is not that same as having a bleeding heart. It's not the same as destroying confidence with your staff and making them stressed out. Choosing when to be open and transparent is an act of wisdom, not deceitfulness. At times, being a good leader means having a positive attitude in the face of serious setbacks. Should you dwell on the setbacks? No. Is the new model of transparent leadership all about being negative? No.

The goal with transparency is to let your employees know the real you. Let them know see your stress, sure. That's the big change from an old school management style. But let them also see your confidence. Let them know you do have plan to destroy the competition. Let them know you won't let the economy hamper growth. Be transparent, but don't let the need for transparency create a sense of doom and gloom.

My main point about what you tell your staff was never intended as a way to hide from the truth. If you sit down at a meeting and the first thing you say is that you are unsure about how to handle the competition or get out of debt, you are not always building trust. This kind of transparency is overrated. Being honest about stress is fine. My point is that a good leader creates a balance between transparency and building confidence.

Transparency is a tool of leadership. There are many other tools. Building relationships with your staff. Encouraging them. Motivating them. Creating an atmosphere of success. Having a vision. Finding partners to help you accomplish company goals. Modeling a good work ethic. Managing your own time and stress level. Championing a cause.

When this great need for total transparency at all times results in a neglect for the other leadership tools, when being "open and honest" about your feelings and expressing uncertainty about the future means no one accepts your plans or trusts your strategy, when a desire to let people know you have flaws and don't always have the answers to every problem creates a constant sense of confusion and apathy-that's when transparency is overrated. That's when the "new school" misses the point.

Lead in transparency! But don't be such an open book that that pages are constantly falling out. Be honest! But don't confuse openness with a dispiriting attitude. Show the real you! but don't neglect the fact that your employees need at least one person in the workplace with a plan, even if you don't know the plan every second of the day.

Published on: Jun 2, 2015