Keeping Secrets as a Leader: A Developed Skill Set

Leaders needing to keep something confidential—about everything from layoffs to mergers—is often overlooked in today’s era of transparency. How do they do it?

The executive knew that a corporate acquisition was coming, and that due diligence would eat up his week: He canceled a dozen meetings, with vague apologies to everyone involved, and abandoned his usual in-office schedule for the week. Staffers wondered why he wasn’t in the office; some assumed he was on vacation. Meanwhile, he winced when an assistant—whom he knew was going to be made redundant—mentioned upcoming travel plans. He felt terrible.

Keeping secrets is an often-forgotten part of leadership, even as firms in the purpose era emphasize transparency from the C-suite. And yet discretion may be the single most important trait for an effective leader, experts say, especially in moments when saying too much can have disproportionately negative, even viral impact. On any given day, most leaders are keeping mum about an array of corporate matters that range from small to market moving. “It’s hard having to maintain that,” says organizational-strategy expert Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

To be sure, leaders have always kept secrets, but in the age of TikTok, corporate confidentiality is at a premium. And HR departments are running on overdrive, with nearly a third of workers reporting emotional exhaustion. Even rank-and-file HR staffers are involved in any number of confidential personnel issues, from mental-healthcare access to retirements. The upside is that employees accept some level of nondisclosure. “I think most employees recognize that there are a fair amount of matters that HR handles that are personal,” says HR expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

Where leaders tend to go wrong is in displaying poor situational self-awareness, says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. People are very aware of typical patterns of behavior, so he suggests that leaders take note of their own. That way, they “can take time to build in normal behavior” that won’t attract attention during extraordinary circumstances, says Bywater.

As for what to say, experts recommend being forthcoming as possible—as early and often as possible—without breaching confidentiality. “Give as much information as you can without divulging confidentiality,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of corporate affairs at Korn Ferry. In practice, this leads to a lot of talking around the secret situation. For example, if a company is considering a merger deal, an executive might tell team members he’s going to be tied up with a time-sensitive, confidential project for the next 24 hours, and provide them with contact information in case they need to reach him. “That removes some of the drama, while reinforcing trust,” says Marshall.

Being honest about the broader situation also sets the stage for future disclosure: It kicks off a process wherein it’s clear that something’s happening, and that when the leader can talk about it, he will. In the meantime, leaders often bring key employees, such as administrative assistants, under the so-called “cone of silence” to help manage the situation. “You give them context so they can be on the front line to help,” says Marshall.

Longtime executives know that confidential goings-on also offer opportunities for strong moments of authenticity, says Amato. She says that it’s sometimes appropriate for leaders to admit that maintaining confidentiality isn’t always easy. “It’s about saying something like, ‘I wish I could share, because sometimes it helps to talk things through,’” she says. As for when to reveal the information, experts say that people like to feel they are hearing it at the earliest reasonable moment. “It’s better to let people know earlier,” says Porter. 


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