Early in my career I took every opportunity I could find to talk with people in leadership. It didn’t matter what type of organization they were leading. I was just curious about how they ordered the world and interpreted their own experiences. The result is that my memory is full of vignettes about a wide range of topics that have stayed with me even today.
On one occasion I had a private discussion with an organizational CEO. He was very seasoned in his work and already had been recognized with important accomplishments. As the conversation unfolded we turned to some of the greatest challenges he experienced in his career. He described a situation in which his private action was misinterpreted by the public. He said to me, “In the minds of the public, sometimes A + B = G.”
What I learned is there are times when a leader will be called on to keep a matter private even if onlookers draw the wrong conclusion. It seems unfair, but the need for privacy has to be weighed against the right for others to know. Where do we draw the line?
John Dewey in his classic 1927 work, The Public and Its Problems, asserts the following:
We take then our point of departure from the objective fact that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others. Following this [clue], we are led to remark that the consequences are of two kinds, those which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction, and those which affect others beyond those immediately concerned. In this distinction we find the germ of the distinction between the private and the public. When indirect consequences are recognized and there is effort to regulate them, something having the traits of a state comes into existence. When the consequences of an action are confined, or are thought to be confined, mainly to the persons directly engaged in it, the transaction is a private one. (p. 12)
If we accept Dewey’s reasoning, then the line between private and public action is a matter of understanding the potential consequences for any decision.
Today we have two very odd examples of the private vs. public tension. The first is the emergence of reality television. I have seen just enough reality TV to understand the basic idea. I decided a few years ago to watch one series from beginning to end. It was incredibly easy to get caught up in the sordid details of people’s lives. Episode after episode the tension would rise as more information about the participants was shared. By the end I learned why the acronym “TMI” has become a common word. Too much information is now common in a society where media and social networking offer a smorgasbord of all-you-can-eat scandal. The direct consequences of such private disclosure may be trivial, but what are the indirect consequences on the public?
The second is the recent news regarding WikiLeaks. The founder of this organization, Julian Assange, has publically released scores of highly confidential documents obtained illegally. He is described by a wide range of terms including journalist, internet activist, whistleblower, and even, anarchist. His motivation may be the subject of speculation for years to come, but the consequences are far from trivial. They are not only societal, but global. The information released was understood to be private, but the consequences of the transactions described in the material quite public. Is there justification for maintaining privacy on some information that has great public consequence?
It seems as if the lines have blurred. Information that for generations would be considered personally private is being made public without a care. And, information that has vast public consequence is caught between a controversy between what is private, what is public and what is privileged.
I think the answer is to be found in the judgments we make personally and professionally. In the best of all possible worlds, our leadership flows from a set of values rooted in integrity. Will our leaders’ values serve as a guide in rendering appropriate judgments when privacy serves both the individual and collective interests? Will our leaders speak openly when the public interest demands disclosure even at the expense of individuals?
These are tough choices and such decisions emerge in all levels of society. Municipalities, schools, churches, hospitals, small businesses, corporations, as well as state and federal governments have great need for leadership with integrity. In a world of reality TV and WikiLeaks, how will we prepare the next generation?