Can a Leader be Too Transparent?

On the one hand, in today’s world of 24/7 always-on, globally connected digital media, we assume that most everything is (or should be) transparent. And many in the West believe that access to information is one of the fundamental underpinnings of Democracy. Yet, on the other hand, we agonize over the consequences of too much transparency—think: Wikileaks, detrimental hacks and plain old oversharing on social media. So, while we celebrate transparency, we are also scared of it. This week, I’d like to take a look at a story playing out in the new that touches upon this tension in transparency. I refer you to Elon Musk.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a jarringly intimate interview with Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk. The interview was conducted after a tumultuous week for Musk—in the preceding days, he had sent a tweet suggesting he might take Tesla private…much to the surprise (and chagrin) of his board and shareholders.

The interview was unusual for a CEO—for anyone, really. It was raw, honest, and completely transparent, and perhaps detrimentally so. In the prelude to the interview, the authors of the piece commented on Musk’s frankness, writing, “In an hour-long interview with The New York Times, he choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model. Asked if the exhaustion was taking a toll on his physical health, Mr. Musk answered: “It’s not been great, actually. I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”

During the interview, Musk also said that he’d been “working up to 120 hours a week,” and that, “he had not taken more than a week off since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria.” In the wake of that revelation, Musk added: “There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside…This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”

As you can imagine, his candid words seemed to have panicked Tesla’s board and spawned plenty of dramatic headlines, including one this weekend in the WSJ: “Public Bravado, Private Doubts: Inside the Unraveling of Elon Musk’s Tesla Buyout.” Furthermore, Tesla’s market shares have fallen significantly since his announcement and subsequent reversal this past weekend.

We all value transparency in leadership, yet Musk’s public behavior prompted me (and I’m sure many others) to wonder if a CEO can be too transparent. In order to quantify the public’s shifting perceptions of Musk, Y&R’s proprietary research engine, BAV, found that among U.S. adults in 2018, Elon Musk ranks in the top 1% of “visionary” and in the bottom 28% on “reliability” when measured against other prominent cultural brand figures. When compared to other U.S. CEOs, Musk is ranked as significantly more “transparent” than most—he is 82% more transparent than Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and 36% more transparent than Apple’s Tim Cook.

Kara Swisher, The New York Time’s tech reporter, put it best in a piece she penned about Musk’s erratic behavior, which she listed as his making “bankruptcy jokes about the health of his companies; [attacking] journalists as shills; relentlessly [baiting] short sellers who have bet on his downfall; and [calling] a diver in the Thai crisis with whom he wrangled a “pedo” — as in phile.” Despite the lengthy list of offenses, Swisher positively concludes that Musk is not crazy, but rather, “deeply human, with all the positive and negative characteristics that suggests.”

The problem with stream of consciousness transparency is that markets react. And when you employ over 50,000 people as Musk does, what is the price of transparency? While transparency is a good thing and critical, transparency without accountability is reckless.

“Nothing is more opaque than absolute transparency”

-Margaret Atwood

My view is that the more we insist upon complete transparency, the harder it is to see clearly through it.

What do you think?


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