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Gut Check: Can You Keep Confidential Information … Confidential?

I spent this past week in Brazil helping launch the Portuguese translation of my book, The Leadership Contract. Our local team did an amazing job of orchestrating a number of key events and it was a great experience to meet so many Brazilian business leaders.

During a lunch meeting, I was talking with several of our clients about leadership challenges. One business leader began to share a frustration she’s had with other leaders in her company who do a dreadful job of keeping sensitive information confidential. The other leaders who were with us jumped in, agreeing that the inability of leaders to protect sensitive information was a real issue in their organizations.

That evening, I reflected more on this topic because it’s one that I have come across quite often in my work with leaders.

When you are in a leadership role, at any level, you will be privy to information that is confidential. Sometimes it’s about a company’s strategy. Maybe there’s an acquisition or merger in play. Or at times it may be something personal about an employee that should be kept discreet.

It is exceedingly important that all leaders know when to keep confidential information confidential. Unfortunately, there are leaders who, for a number of reasons, just can’t seem to keep things to themselves. Not only do they damage their organizations, but they often pay a heavy personal price.

Consider the example of Kathleen Kane, a former leader who probably wishes she had been more discreet.

The former attorney general of Pennsylvania was forced to resign in August after being found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice for the illegal leaking of confidential grand jury evidence to a newspaper reporter. She now faces up to 14 years in prison.

A rising political star in the state Democratic Party, Kane was accused of leaking the information to harm the reputation of a rival prosecutor. When asked by police about the leak, she tried to pin the entire scheme on a member of her staff. Evidence presented at trial revealed that story to be a lie.

Kane’s fall from grace—she resigned on the day the jury reached its verdict and is now awaiting sentencing—is an important reminder to leaders and the sensitive information they possess.

If leaders know they are going to have access to confidential information, and that they have an accountability to keep it discreet, why do they still share it?

For some, it’s an ego play. These leaders are trying to create the impression they are the primary hub for everything that’s happening in their company. This is a silly attempt at trying to show people how important they are in the pecking order of a company’s hierarchy. In reality, all that posturing is selfish and a sure sign of insecurity.

Other times, leaders simply do not respect the confidential nature of information, and how it can harm other people’s lives. We don’t need to look any further than Donald Trump as an example of this kind of attitude.

Trump’s presidential campaign has been defined by many offensive, shocking and indiscreet statements. He has also shown a propensity for exploiting sensitive details about the personal lives of his political adversaries and their families.

That was the case in March, when Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on some embarrassing incident involving Heidi Cruz, wife of Sen. Ted Cruz, a former rival for the Republican nomination. If he actually wins the presidency, he’ll have access to much more confidential information, and will have to learn somehow to be more discreet.

This is such an important leadership issue that I believe it is prudent for each of us to pause and reflect on it. How do you respond when you have access to confidential information? Can you be trusted to keep your mouth zipped up? Or do you have loose lips?

I believe if you are in a leader role, you have a fundamental obligation to safeguard sensitive or potentially embarrassing information. Further, it is your duty to make sure if someone starts sharing confidential information with you, that you stop them. Don’t engage in the conversation. Be the example for other leaders in your company.

This week’s Gut Check question: Can you keep confidential information … confidential?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its second edition.

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