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Leadership Transparent leadership is about telling the truth in times of change and uncertainty

Justin Ferrabee is the outgoing chief operating officer of Payments Canada in Ottawa.

Leadership is messy. And today’s leaders face the unique and challenging task of creating certainty and stability in an age when both are seldom present.

Markets, economies and entire countries are changing. Innovation and disruption tantalize consumers and threaten the status quo. People are anxious. Competition is fierce. The deafening drumbeat of change refuses to stop. It’s our human nature to crave consistency. But as a leader, the question is how to provide that in these chaotic times?

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One need not look far to see the distrust, secrecy and turmoil that prevails when chaos reigns. Leading a diverse set of people to accomplish an ambitious set of goals in these dynamic conditions requires at least one necessary ingredient – the truth.

Lead with the truth

Influencing and inspiring teams and organizations in a world where the hierarchies and social contracts of the past have crumbled away, means truth and transparency are the only options. The ability to communicate clearly and truthfully the direction you’re taking a company, to admit the uncertainties and risks that journey entails and to detail the sacrifices required to get there, is almost non-negotiable for 21st-century leaders.

It is only with this level of transparency that teams can adequately prepare, adapt, and pivot in the face of unforeseen societal, technological, and market shifts. Leave people in the dark, and risk watching your goals crumble away.

Transparency allows the best and the brightest to make meaningful and informed decisions about where, with whom and for what cause they want to invest themselves. When you build your leadership upon a foundation of integrity, you’ll earn the trust of your people and, as a result, they’ll recognize the need to make hard choices. They’re adults and professionals; they get what it takes to thrive in today’s markets, so be honest with them about current and future challenges.

Don’t shy away when the truth gets tough

The truth can be embarrassing, awkward, and humbling, and you don’t always know what the repercussions of sharing the truth are going to be – especially during times when outcomes are uncertain.

Managing truth and transparency is a delicate process. There is no right answer for exactly how transparent you should be with your organization. Each leader must choose for themselves how open they’re going to be in their work. But don’t shy away when the truth is tough. In a world that’s becoming increasingly networked, where power is more distributed, and uncertainty is the only certainty, truth is one of the most powerful tools a leader can deploy.

Rather than try to impose certainty where none exists or sweep risk and failure under the rug, successful leaders will acknowledge uncertainty, embrace the complexities of constant change, and then communicate truthfully with their staff, as well as shareholders and customers.

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Be the certainty

People want reassurance you’re leading and protecting them. They know we are living and working in uncertain times, and they need to feel confident you’re managing the situation and looking out for their best interests. This means that you will have to make choices and invest in them. You will have to stand as the certainty, knowing that you have doubt.

There’s an undeniable element of risk involved when you’re transparent because, while the future is increasingly unknowable, your team and organization crave stability. As a leader, you’ll always be managing uncertainty to varying degrees, but your staff and stakeholders want to hear that things are going to work out regardless of the current risk levels. Be open about your optimism too. When you have earned trust through transparent communication and by actions that match those words, people will believe you when you do communicate assurance to them.

Embrace ‘messy’

When things are messy and unstable, where you have doubt and worry, transparency can lead to mobilization. Leaders must build and foster nimble teams eager to respond to challenges with flexibility and innovative ingenuity, rather than rigidity and stubbornness.

Leading with the truth is certainly not an easier way of doing business but it’s more effective than compartmentalizing and classifying knowledge. When leaders communicate a transparent and inspirational vision rooted in the realities of a disordered and ever-changing modern world, organizations breed resilience and adaptability, and ultimately achieve incredible results.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about work and leadership. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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