What is Transparent Leadership?


By our Chief Strategic Coach and Business Maverick, Adrian Stalham

Leadership is under pressure more than ever before. Organisations have been thrust into a Covid-19 led digital transformation on a timeline no-one previously thought possible. Teams and individuals have been cast to the four winds, collaboration tooling has been hurried into place, networks stressed, ways of working disrupted and vast swathes of business shut down. Alongside this, a worldwide health crisis, people laid off, heroics by front-line staff in many areas, stockpiling and forced containment. And this all happened in the space of a few weeks.

I can imagine the micro-managers of the world tearing their hair out. With a mindset that assumes people can’t possibly be productive unless they can be ‘seen’ in the office and ‘controlled’, this must feel like a baptism of fire. But of course, they brought it upon themselves for being stuck in the dark ages, managing via a Theory X style and lacking in trust. I somewhat doubt they would be reading this anyway, they know all the answers so why look for new opinions?

For the rest of you, the enlightened, I’m interested in your experiences from this unprecedented leadership moment. How are you innovating in the management space? How are you leading in this new dynamic we have been forced into?


At S&S we talk a lot about one of our strategic drivers, becoming a model organisation. We want to experiment with the most progressive ideas about leadership, culture, ways of working and engagement. We literally want to be the most sought after organisation to work for, or work with. As a leadership team, we are all learning. We hold each other to account, challenge and collaborate furiously, whilst having an unshakeable sense of trust between us. Since the lockdown, we have become closer and more aligned than ever. We speak together more often whilst carrying the new burden of keeping a business, that we care passionately about, afloat in tempestuous seas.

Part of our leadership ethos is radical transparency. We try to make as much as humanly possible open to the team. We have very few confidential things. One of the tools we implemented recently (just before the lockdown) was a leadership team feedback tool. We use a visual board (we like visualisation), which is populated with what the team believes to be the most important things they need from us as a Leadership Team. This is what it includes:


Vision and Direction 

Radical transparency

Clear Communication 

Clear feedback

Servant leadership

Safety and trust

Support and availability


Career and Personal Development support

Motivate and inspire

What a brilliant list! I’m sure the micro-managers of the world will be surprised that things such as ‘work allocation’, ‘a controlling influence’ and ‘daily reviews of progress’ are missing. The team decided they wouldn’t include culture as a category as they felt they were all responsible for that.

If you ever wondered what Servant leadership is, look at that list above. A variation of this is what your team really need from you. Not what you think it is. This is your job as a leader – creating an environment where your team rave about your performance in these areas, which impact them.

Additionally, we implemented a feedback mechanism. Every few weeks the team, first individually and then as a discussion group, scores the Leadership Team using a RAG (Red/Amber/Green) status for each of these categories.

Our only request is that if they score Amber or Red (and they do) that they give us ideas on how to improve. We didn’t want this to turn into an armchair critique, so we have a column that says “continue this” and another that says “consider this”. So now we also have a feed-forward element to help us learn and improve. It’s an anonymous process.


And before you ask, yes it can be uncomfortable. We get scored with ambers and reds, as well as greens. It’s hard to look at the feedback and remain curious and accepting, resisting the urge to defend and explain. It hurts our pride, our ego. But we make a massive effort to put those two things to one side and remain in a learning mindset. We consider the feedback as a team and agree on responses. We don’t necessarily do everything suggested during the process. There are sometimes reasons why we have to do things and maybe we have failed to communicate that reason. But mostly we take the feed-forward comments and try to implement something that makes the world a better place for the team.

As leaders, we are generally used to measuring and reviewing others. Are you encouraging your team to give you feedback? Not once a year in a mock 360 feedback session, but every few weeks, on the things that your team actually needs from you? Do you even know what your team needs from you? When did you last ask?

This is just one of many new aspects of mobilising a fully remote team that we have discovered works well, and that we don’t want to lose when we go back to “normal”.  How transparent is your leadership?

Written by Sullivan & Stanley