Physicist, John Wheeler suggests that information may be the basic ingredient of the universe itself. In an ‘information age’ it certainly becomes a key indicator for both organisations and leadership alike. Recently there have been a few high profile stories reported in the national media that serve to illustrate the contrasting attitudes towards the sharing of information. In effect the differing approaches to information reflect the leadership attitude that underpins each of the stances adopted. It is a revealing insight!

The rules for managing information have undergone dramatic transformation fuelled largely by the twin forces of increasingly sophisticated technology and a public demanding to be kept informed. The imprint behind these forces is the deeper understanding of the systemic, connected and networked nature of the world in which we conduct our business.
But let’s review the reported stories before returning to explore these thoughts and implications for today’s leaders.
The first story involves two renowned security companies. The report centred on the startling revelation that security systems could be breached though the use of umbrellas. Umbrellas hardly seem a threat to national security but it seems that the infrared beams, standard mechanisms to guard both domestic and commercial premises, could be compromised by intruders who shielded themselves with umbrellas. Of course this was not comforting news for a security conscious public.
The two security companies mentioned were then asked to comment on this situation. The first company said that when they become aware of this threat they wrote to all their clients (some 7,000) informing them of the potential risk and suggested some upgrades that they hoped would deal with the problem. The second security company were highly critical of this action as it would, in their opinion, raise public alarm (no pun intended) and they maintained that the upgrade suggested was not necessarily guaranteed to solve the threat. They also acknowledged, and this is the telling point, that for the past year they had known about the threat, but chose not to inform their clients. A year and not a word!
Now I can’t speak for you, but if my home’s security was breached by some umbrella wielding Mary Poppins type intruder, and I only found out after the fact that those entrusted with securing my home had known of the potential risk for a year, but had done nothing to inform me that ‘secure’ was actually, ‘not so secure’, I would be fairly upset!
Of course, there may have been strong economic considerations behind the contrasting responses of the respective companies, something anyone with a hint of cynicism could not fail to detect. The company that suggested the upgrade might well have been written off as manipulating clients into potentially costly upgrades whilst the other approach could be interpreted as not divulging the information in order to ensure there was no mass exodus of clients. But, our concern here precludes us from pursuing this line of questioning, tempting as it might be.
Another story, one that made the leading front page headlines, involved a drug related incident at a prominent private school. Of course such allegations are always messy and this was no exception with parents, pupils and the principal all having their say. From a PR perspective it was a nightmare for the school involved, one that prided itself on strong Christian values. However, what stood out were the comments attributed to the principal involved. He basically issued a “no comment” statement, making it clear that this issue had nothing to do with the public. He believed it was an internal matter and that was it, case closed – as far as the public were concerned anyhow. How wrong he was! For one thing, it was splashed on the front page of a prominent Saturday paper thereby making it a ‘public matter’. For another thing, there were public now reading about the incident who had some or other connection with the school and for whom it certainly did have something to do with, albeit through association. I for one could be counted amongst this number. Maintaining that it had nothing to do with the public was akin to shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted or straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic!
The principal’s response showed little understanding for the powerful notion that ‘perception is reality’ and had only he displayed a willingness to offer some information that would inform, even invite the public in efforts to resolve the issue, how different the perception could have been. Once again a further example that strips bare leadership’s attitude towards information.
The stance adopted by the one security company and the principal reveals a belief that information chastity belts are central to the management function. The scaffolding supporting this is one which sees management’s role as one that needs to control, contain and guard against unfettered information running rampant throughout the organisation. This belief, together with the processes and policies used to entrench it, is simply no longer valid or sustainable. In these kinds of environments or businesses, the only information that is allowed into the system or tolerated, is that which confirms existing perceptions, plans and leadership.
There is however another story. It is a story that offers a wonderfully contrasting picture and depicts enlightened rather than archaic leadership beliefs. It is a story fashioned out of a current crisis, which as I write has yet to be solved. It is the story of Pick ‘n Pay and the poison products (sounds like the next Harry Potter instalment!). Most South Africans would be aware of the crisis that must be giving many in this retail chain sleepless nights. Someone, presumably with a grudge against the chain, has poisoned select Pick ‘n Pay products causing Pick ‘n Pay to withdraw these product lines from their shelves, at some cost I would imagine. All this has unfolded in the harsh glare of front page coverage.
Yet the response of Sean Summers, Chief Executive, has been in stark contrast to the previous example. His approach right from the outset has been to keep the public fully informed of the situation. He has been quoted as saying, “We have nothing to hide” and has had regular contact with the families of those affected by the poisoned products. Information has been shared, leadership has been proactive and in the face of a potentially crippling situation, Pick ‘n Pay, and Summers in particular have performed with credit. How easy it would have been to try and hide, to have adopted an iron glad risk containment approach and issued paternalistic assurances to the public.
Ultimately information cannot be controlled. Those in leadership that believe it can and seek to do so, eventually come to realise the futility of their efforts. There are countless corporate examples that reveal the folly of this industrial age mindset in the context of the age in which we now live. There is strong evidence to support the direct link between free-flow information and corporate growth, innovation, and healthy work environments. Corporate environments and individual leaders who actively seek out new information and feedback, who aren’t threatened by what they might learn, are without doubt the organisations and leaders of tomorrow. Creating places where collective inquiry can flourish takes a very special kind of leadership. Certainly the old beliefs about the leader’s role and function, together with the associated metaphors we are used to associating with leadership, no longer apply. New ways and terminology has to be discovered and I suspect that it is people like Summers who are leading the charge in this regard.
“We cannot continue to use information technology and management systems as gatekeepers, excluding and predefining who needs to know what” argues Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science. She goes on to add, “Instead, we need to evoke contribution through freedom, trusting that people can make sense of the information, we need therefore to develop new approaches to information – not management but encouragement, not control but genesis”.
This takes courageous leadership. Yet, if leaders don’t enable the whole organisation to look at itself, to be reflective, engage in information and learn about its decisions and activities, then who can? Of course, individual leaders who cannot do this for themselves, certainly cannot do it for the organisation they lead.

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