Open and Honest Leadership: The Pitfalls

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By Darian Sutton, CRA, RT(R)

Last time I wrote about my introduction to open and honest leadership. If you missed it, please find it here. I find that leading in an open and honest way is very rewarding. It promotes trust and cooperation among staff, sets an example for employees that I truly want them to follow, and allows me to go home feeling like I’m a good person. It is also anything but easy.

In my opinion, the first pitfall with open and honest communication is determining how open is “too open,” and therefore negligent or unnecessarily harmful. Where is the line between honest and mean, or even vindictive? The key is to be respectfully honest: getting the honest truth out there without being needlessly harmful. These communications can rarely be ad-libbed; they often take planning and practice. This is why, even with open and honest communication, the message may take a while to get out to everyone. Test the message to make sure it is respectful of all parties, safeguards the privacy of those with a right to it, and neither minimizes nor exaggerates the issue.

It is a difficult line to walk and takes a great deal of practice and resilience. I have made mistakes, but I would rather make honest mistakes than dishonest ones. When you make mistakes, it is important to own up to them. This may mean going to your boss and saying, “I think I made a mistake, what can I do to rectify it?” Then – and this is important – you must follow up and do it. This approach is difficult, sometimes downright dreadful, but it teaches fast! This is how openness and honesty help us take accountability, instead of waiting to be held accountable.

As leaders, wouldn’t we much rather have someone come to us and say, “Hey boss; I messed up! How do I fix it?” than to find out later and have to track them down and confront them with the consequences of the mistake plus the delay? I’ve found most staff feel the same way! They would rather their boss say, “I’m sorry, I messed this up,” and then make a commitment to fix it. Remember: an apology means nothing if the behavior doesn’t change.

Open and honest leadership also takes something a bit harder to teach: introspection. As a leader you must be willing and able to look at the parts of yourself you’d rather hide and recognize your weaknesses, in order to avoid falling prey to them.

Here’s an example from my own experience admitting to myself that a very human flaw was motivating me to act against my values. Being introspective and recognizing my flaw was the only way for me to overcome it and act in accordance with my values.

Our medical director recently told me that Radiology had too many policies that didn’t need to be policies. She gave me a write up on the difference between policies, procedures, standards, and guidelines, and a list of 20 policies that didn’t need to be. I had a hard time with that! I put a great deal of effort into separating policies from procedures when I started years ago, before our medical director even worked here! She doesn’t know what agencies may or may not have required us to have these policies.

But… that was my pride talking. I had to realize that I draw a great deal of pride from being good at my job and didn’t appreciate being told how to do it. I had to face that and recognize that maybe it was time to take another look at these policies and make an honest effort despite my pride. Regulations change, best practices changes, and it had been years since I went over them with that critical eye. Our medical director has to put time into policy review every year, as a Critical Access Hospital, and has some liability as well. She’s trying to make helpful suggestions to streamline the process and make it more efficient. I respect that! But my pride originally kept me from seeing it that way and almost motivated me to resist an effort to make things more efficient for everyone! No one could have convinced me that I was doing this; it had to come from inside: introspection.

It can be difficult to manage the appropriate amount of openness, just as it is hard to practice self-honesty, but the combination of the two provides a rewarding balance between being a leader and being a human. This approach also leads to more openness and honesty from staff, as they see a leader who is willing to walk the talk. This can then lead to staff ownership of their actions and results, and eventually, staff taking ownership of department results! This drives both performance and staff engagement … and helps me sleep better at night.

So much can be gained by exchanging ideas and information; I would love to give you folks a chance to be a part of this subject and add to its value. Please share your thoughts, questions, stories, and lessons in the comments, or send me an e-mail. I’d love to hear from you.

Darian Sutton, CRA, RT(R) is the ancillary services director and HIPAA security officer at Roundup Memorial Healthcare in Roundup, MT. He can be reached at


  1. Introspection/Self reflection is critical for everyone to practice. It helps you understand triggers, and reactions, as well as help improve responses for the next interaction. Also, explaining the why’s in most interactions is helpful for me.

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