How to Be An Appropriately Transparent Leader (Without Oversharing)

Being an authentic leader is hardly negotiable anymore.

People want to see the real you, with your weaknesses, mistakes and vulnerabilities.

You know that, because you’re watching the last fumes of the ‘never let ’em see you sweat’ leader vaporize into the stratosphere.

But you’ve also seen the pendulum swing the other way. You don’t want to be the ‘oversharing’ transparent person on your Facebook newsfeed whose every emotion, relational struggle and moment of self-doubt is posted for the planet to gawk at.

How do you become appropriately transparent? How do you find that fine line between being too revealing and being too reserved?

Why You Need To Show Your Weakness

Before we get into how to be appropriately transparent leader, let’s ask a key question: why do people need to see the real you?

Here’s why:

People admire your strengths, but they identify with your weaknesses.

Think about it. You do this.

You hear your favourite speaker and take notes that chronicle every insight.

But when he starts to share about the time his startup failed, or how he almost blew his big presentation, or how he frustrates his team if he doesn’t check his attitude, suddenly you identify with your hero on an emotional level.

You don’t just admire him anymore, you identify with him. He becomes human. And you suddenly feel like there’s hope for you.

By the way, preachers, if you don’t talk about your weaknesses in your messages, you are missing a huge opportunity for your congregation not just to connect with you, but to find hope in their own lives.

 

Finding Appropriate Transparency Makes All the Difference in the World

I’ve been on both sides of the pendulum.

Early in my leadership, I was afraid to let anyone see my weaknesses. I was afraid to say “I don’t know”. I was hesitant to share my struggles. I thought I had to have it all together.

I got away from that after a few years and became more open, but then I went through burnout and in one sobering moment discovered the other end of the spectrum.

About a year after I came back from burnout (here’s a post on the 12 keys I discovered to coming back from burnout), I was speaking to a group of church leaders in Philadelphia. I talked quite openly about my struggle with burnout.

After, the lead pastor of the church came up to me and said “Wow…that was tough. Are you sure you don’t need more counseling?”

 

The Three Mistakes I Made In Oversharing

I’m sure in that moment, I had overshared.

Looking back on it, I realized I made three mistakes in that talk.

1. I hadn’t finished processing what I was going through.

2. My talk about that subject was more about me than it was about the audience.

3. I didn’t have any clear strategies to help any listeners who might have been going through the same thing.

I wish I had a better metaphor for that kind of talk, but here’s how I think of it (because I’ve sat through too many and given one or two myself): it’s like the speaker just threw up a little (or a lot) on the audience.

And nobody leaves feeling better for it. Except maybe the speaker or writer.

 

But It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

I’ve since given talks about my burnout and recovery to thousands of leaders in different venues and even different continents, and people have thanked me for it again and again.

Some of the most heartfelt and meaningful thank you notes I’ve received have been from people who have heard me talk about my recovery from burnout.

What’s the difference?

I shared, but I stopped oversharing. 

In fact, over the last few years I’ve tried to develop some working guidelines for appropriate transparency.

 

4 Keys to Appropriate Transparency

I’m by no means an expert, but here’s what I try to do in my life, writing and speaking. These guidelines have helped me find the line I think I need to find, and I hope they can help you.

1. Process your current issues privately

All of us have current struggles. Whether it’s headline news or not (most of our struggles aren’t), it’s so key to have a close circle of people to process them with.

For me, I share these things with my spouse, a few close friends, team, elders, mentors and as needed counselors to work through my current issues. And naturally I’m consulting scripture and praying through them as well. That’s appropriate.

You usually don’t need to talk about these issues publicly; but you do need to talk about them. That someone (appropriate) knows about them and is helping you is key.

Just because somebody needs to know about them doesn’t mean everybody needs to know about them. Discretion and transparency and are not a contradiction at all. Telling the right people is often the difference between success and failure in ministry and leadership.

Anecdotally, I suspect the people who have never cultivated an inner circle with whom to process life are the people who tell everybody their problems. I wish they had an inner circle. Here are 3 keys to developing one.

2. Share publicly what you’ve processed privately

Once an issue is dealt with or mostly dealt with, it’s far more appropriate to share publicly. You never want to give off the “I used to struggle with this but now I have no issues” vibe, but if you haven’t figured out how to deal with a problem, how can you help others deal with it?

I make it a rule to share publicly what I’ve processed privately.

Interestingly enough, I’m never short of material. Bet you won’t be either.

3. Share what will help the listener, not you.

If you can’t be helpful, you’re probably not ready to talk about it.

I find often that the speakers or writers who overshare are people who are processing something for their benefit, not for the benefit of their audience.

The only time that’s ever helpful is when you’re part of that person’s inner circle. Otherwise, it leaves you feeling like a stranger just shared far too much and you leave confused.

If you can’t help your audience with a subject, come to a full stop. There are probably issues you need to deal with. There are probably conversations you still need to have.

One day, God might use that use it to help many. But that day probably isn’t today.

What have you seen work or not work when it comes to transparency?

What guidelines have you developed? Leave a comment!

27 Comments

  1. Gerald Klimczak on October 4, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    And what was your 4th point, you only list 3.

  2. 7 Lies Most Pastors Tell on March 9, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    […] Here’s how to be an appropriately transparent leader without oversharing. […]

  3. Latest Post | Until Hope Returns on June 23, 2017 at 9:18 am

    […] Here’s how to be an appropriately transparent leader without oversharing. […]

  4. Mar Komus on February 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

    In the sub-points you have “4 Keys…” and I see only 3 listed. Are you just choosing to not overshare? 😀

  5. Jen on June 11, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    As both a somewhat recent and rather young widow, people are watching me. I do have parameters by which I choose to share parts on our story on Facebook. Like you, I want to be real without over sharing. What I share must have purpose and must speak life or I will not share. God is good when life is not.

    As I formulate these types of posts I put a lot of thought and prayer into it. I sleep on it if necessary. It must point to Jesus and show God’s faithfulness or it doesn’t get posted.

  6. standingupforJC on November 23, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    The subheading says “4 Keys To Appropriate Transparency” but there were only 3. 🙂

    • Mar Komus on February 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

      I think he’s choosing to not overshare. Maybe still processing that fourth? 😉

  7. John Crowe on August 22, 2015 at 6:37 am

    If it has to do with mental illness, your own or a family member’s, then be very careful who you share that with even if you are dealing with it very well. There is still a lot of stigma in society and in churches that the church has helped create.

    Don’t add to your pain by sharing where it is not safe and they exist. Other places will let you be more safely authentic that others. It tough enough when it’s mental illness issues one is dealing with, but some churches like some individual Christians just really freak out when it comes to that being true in a pastor’s family or in the pastor themselves.

    People would get over a lot of stigma very quickly in churches if we would read enough about people of great faith like Martin Luther deeply enough to know he struggled with depression, that his faith never cured, but helped him deal with, talked about it in a pastoral way in his sermons, and made some caring observations about other Christians who struggled with depression and other such things.

    • Jina Appa on November 26, 2015 at 7:04 am

      Outstanding points, John Crowe!

  8. Xrucianus on July 29, 2015 at 6:20 am

    “I” really need this pragmatic advice. Not to pass it on to others… :o) Mercy, I needed it for myself! Thank you Carey.

  9. Bethany Macklin on July 31, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Really appreciated this. A few checkpoint questions I would add (and do in my.own scenarios) is how will what I want to share highlight God’s great character and heart? How will it glorify Him? At the end of my story, who is the attention of my audience drawn to? Me or God?

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  13. alisha on January 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    So true, we live in a culture that begs for our opinion on everything and teaches us to express it no matter the consequence to ourselves and others (facebook is a great example). I think it’s great to share what you’ve learned with others once you’ve processed things, but on the other hand I really don’t like it when I am talking with someone and they feel they have to share their “I’ve overcome” stories with me for every struggle I’m going through. Sometimes you just want someone to listen.

  14. micahfoster on January 14, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    This is also a huge topic for volunteers working with kids and students. I once had an adult volunteer unload her life on a group of high school girls. DANGER! DANGER!

    When in leadership, you should have a trusted core you can be completely transparent about the current things in your life. But you should not share everything publicly about your current struggles.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Such a great point Micah. In a hyperconnected world we are more lonely than ever, and that leads to situations like the one you describe. Gotta stop that stuff!

  15. Lawrence W. Wilson on January 14, 2014 at 9:45 am

    My wife has been a great help in this. She both pushes me to be more transparent (not my natural tendency) and checks me from over-sharing (because it’s so hard to tell sometimes). Having an external filter, so to speak, really helps.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Absolutely. Great point Lawrence. My wife knows that line too and helps me find it. Thank you!

  16. Matt Norman on January 14, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for sharing this. I am currently wrestling with how to use some of the things I have struggled with to help others that might struggle. This post has been very helpful in this.

  17. Michael on January 14, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Always enjoy reading your insights. Good, practical and applicable. Thanks for this word of wisdom.

  18. Leah on January 13, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    This has helped me tremendously. Thank you so much

  19. Charles Hodsdon on January 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for this post, I’ve been in recovery from a burn out for the last 4 months, and been debating how much to share, the concept of only sharing publicly what I’ve processed privately is great, as is keeping the focus on what will help those who are hearing. Thank you

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 13, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      Hope your recovery goes well Charles. And I’m so glad this helped!

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