Disclosure in Leadership? The Benefits and Risks of Showing Up Real

If you are like most leaders, you are concerned about your image and your brand. You want to show up strong, confident, and worthy of being followed. But what happens when you’re not feeling strong? What happens when life throws you curve balls to juggle on top of your leadership? What’s the risk of disclosure? What’s the risk of keeping things hidden? In full disclosure, I share a story of disclosure and how keeping things buried can backfire or not.

A Story of Non-Disclosure

I had just been promoted to my first big leadership position in HR, concurrent with a significant merger. All the players were new, I had a new boss, a new team, and new senior leaders to impress. Because life sometimes works out messy, I also was going through a divorce and trying to pick up the pieces in a new life, in a new home, as a single mom. The job required substantial travel to Manhattan and I lived in Baltimore.

One of first tasks in my new role was to build a Diversity strategy. We gathered a fantastic team representing each business unit, and were making great progress creating strategy and programs. I felt great about the relationship I had with this team and the work we were doing was vital.

And then this happened.

One day a women from my Diversity Council burst into my office, pointed her finger at me and yelled, “you are a fraud!” I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about and I was deeply hurt by the remark from this trusted teammate. She went on “I came by your office yesterday when you weren’t here and saw the pictures. They are all of you and your son–no Dad. You lead all these meetings where we work on programs to make it easier for single moms and NOT ONE TIME do you mention that you are one. What else aren’t you sharing?”

Yikes.

The truth is, I had been very deliberate about keeping that hidden. Even my new boss did not know what I was going through. I had heard enough discussion about the concept of “single moms” needing extra care and support so they could come to work on time and not call out sick when their kids were sick. I thought, I’m not like that. I’m a different kind of single mom, I’m an executive. I’d better just keep all this to myself. Oh really?

I began checking around with some other folks on the council. One gay man said, “Karin, you work so hard to get to know us as people and we love that. But, we are starting to wonder about you. You know all about us, but we know nothing about you.”

Clearly, my lack of disclosure had backfired.

Or had it?

Would I have been promoted in the midst of a merger with all new players if my new lifestyle had been part of the conversation? Or, would someone wonder if the “timing was just not right” and the “position really needed to be in NY.”

I will never know.

Footnote: Althought that was a lifetime ago, and I am now happily married with 2 children, I learned a great deal from that experience. I now chose to lead with more transparency.

What’s the right amount of disclosure? What’s the right balance of protecting your brand and being authentic.

What disclosure is good exposure?

This week, I address the issue of trust and authenticity from various angles.. I hope you will tune in to join the conversation.