Management Matters
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Management Matters

Radical Transparency Lessons from Top Secret Military Intelligence

What I learned about leadership transparency in the most secretive organization of all — and how it can help you create resilient, high performance teams

Photo by Sergiu Nista on Unsplash

“Share everything!” — This is not the advice you expect to hear in military intelligence, an organization synonymous with the “need to know” principle. Yet that is exactly the advice I got while learning leadership in a top secret intelligence unit. Let me share why, how I use it today as a senior executive in a high tech company, and how it applies to leadership in general.

I served some of my formative years in a top secret technology unit in military intelligence. I started as a software engineer and quickly became a manager of progressively larger teams. It was in this demanding environment that I first experienced what it was like to lead others. I had to learn fast.

I was lucky enough to be able to learn by observing some amazing leaders take on complicated, high-risk projects and motivate large teams to make immense sacrifices and deliver with precision. Much of how I practice leadership today is a direct result of observing these tough, ruthless, always inspiring leaders. It took me some time to realize that the most important skills I learned from them were not about task assignment or risk management — they were about motivating teams to take on the impossible and make it happen. A key component of that is learning how to share.

A basic rule of a top secret military intelligence unit is to provide information on a “need to know basis”. When much of the information you deal with is top secret, when leaking it to the wrong hands could literally cost lives, one must share the specific information that is needed by the other person or team to carry out their task. Nothing more.

For new leaders, the “need to know” principle is often confounded with a very different, very human, but ultimately destructive leadership practice: withholding information as a managerial tool of control. A new or immature leader might think: “If I know more than others, I can ask my reports to do anything — they can’t challenge me since they simply don’t have all the facts”. Such leaders might use the inherent secrecy of military intelligence as an excuse to share less, feeling they gain better control.

Smart and more mature leaders know better. They instinctively understand that sharing extensively has huge benefits. They look for opportunities to share more — not less. For them, barriers to sharing, like the “need to know” rule, are a problem to solve — not a tool to use. Some of the benefits I have personally noticed as a leader practicing radical transparency include:

  • Making each person’s decisions better: in a high tech environment, secret or not, every single employee is a creative innovator. Purely repetitive tasks are what computer scripts do. Every function you write, every module you design, all present endless choices and tradeoffs. No single person — regardless of whether they became managers — can review, let alone make, all of these decisions on their own and expect their employees to “just execute”. Extensive sharing of context allows these choices to be informed and informed decisions are always better.
  • Inviting challenges: by sharing context extensively, the manager invites challenges to their decisions. The mature manager understands that inviting such challenges, based on intimately understanding the various parameters and “big picture” context of the project, makes the ultimate decision better. At a deeper level, such leaders understand that by showing others how challenges to end decisions are welcome, they create a team culture where what really matters is decisions that lead to good results — not who said what. A culture of thoughtful, respectful, informed dissent creates resilient high performance teams.
  • Motivation and trust: Once a high level decision is made, it is critical that the team is able to rally and execute. By sharing and inviting challenges, the team is much more likely to trust that the decision was a good one, and execute it with precision and passion. This could be especially important when the work environment is a high pressure environment, asking people to dedicate their full time and talent to executing non-trivial decisions. When employees trust the decisions, when the decision making process is transparent and based on shared context, that trust will lead to the entire team being motivated and rallying to make it happen.

But can you even practice sharing when working in a top secret organization? This was a lesson I had to be taught first, then realize I have experienced it from the leaders above me all the time. Shortly after becoming a manager, the top leadership sent many of us who were new leaders to a leadership course. The course touched on many different topics, some generic and some specific to leading in a top secret military unit. At some point the instructor started discussing information and context sharing and several of us immediately said “but we deal with state secrets! we can’t!”. His response was “of course you can”, which led us to ask him what and how much sharing he thought was appropriate. His answer was shocking: “Share Everything”.

Really? Everything? What about “need to know”?

OK, so not really everything, but “everything that is not explicitly prohibited”. There are always specific details that a leader can’t share, but the key question for any specific detail is “why can’t this be shared”. If it is a top-secret detail, and the intended recipient does not need to know, you would indeed be prohibited from sharing it. As a side note — that could happen in reverse as well: it is quite common in the intelligence community that one of your reports would have the need to know some details and would not be allowed to share it with you if you as their manager don’t have that need. Once looked at through this lens, most details — and almost anything that contributes to context which would allow for better decision making — can and should be shared.

After reflecting on this leadership instructor’s advice, I thought back on my own experience with the leaders I reported to. I started realizing how they were the perfect example of this practice. There was so much they could have just ordered us to do, but instead went to great lengths to explain and share context and reasons. They did not just allow for differing opinions — they welcomed them and congratulated those whose unpopular opinion ended up as the chosen direction. I started realizing how even in the most secretive environment, great leaders practice radical transparency.

How does that lesson apply in normal, non “top secret” military organizations? Clearly the fact that no state secrets are involved should make radical transparency much easier. There are still specific details that can’t be shared (examples include confidential information on customers, protected financials, details shared under individual NDA, and others) but there are far fewer such pieces of information. Having said that, I found that for many managers extensive sharing is still hard to practice. Trying to consciously fight the internal barriers to sharing, I ask myself these questions:

  • Did you share everything around a given topic, project, or decision point? Ideally, most of the time the answer should be “yes, I shared everything I know — my team knows all that I do about the topic”.
  • If you did not share some specific detail, is it explicitly confidential and can’t be shared? If it is not confidential — reconsider and share.
  • If you have truly confidential information, your job just got harder: how can you impart the relevant context so your team can make good decisions, without sharing this detail? This is worth spending time and energy on.
  • Does your team often make wrong decisions or tradeoffs that you need to correct? If so, is it because they lack context? What can you do to make it more likely that they reach the right decision on their own?

Learning how radical information sharing can work even in a top secret military intelligence unit was an eye opening lesson for me. As I started leading larger teams and transitioned to executive leadership in a large high tech company, I had to continue to learn how to apply this lesson, and how to teach it to the other leaders in my team. The deeper appreciation of the benefits it brings and growing comfortable with that level of transparency are a life-long quest. None of this is easy, but the benefits I have seen repeatedly, in teams that make smart decisions, are resilient, trusting and motivated, and ultimately deliver consistently — those benefits have always been worth it.

Is near-total information sharing something you already practice? Can you try it for a few months and see how it works for you? Whatever you choose, I hope this article helped you realize that if radical transparency can be practiced in top secret units it can be applied, and can provide immese value, within your team as well.

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