Transparent Managers

EXCELLENT LEADERS never forget that they are responsible for supporting the corporation, and they avoid derogatory comments about it. One essential skill of leadership in creating a corporation-wide sense of pride and unity is that of “challenging up and supporting down.” This dual responsibility requires a comprehensive understanding of management decisions and the ability to present them in a constructive manner.

Challenging up means being willing to “lead up” on issues that involve bad news as well as good news. Excellent leaders will challenge ideas when they believe these ideas are not in the best interest of the company or their associates. However, challenging up does not mean that a leader rallies people together by openly discussing what he or she perceives to be bad decisions made by management. Rather, it means that a manager contains personal feelings about the decision and takes on the responsibility of discussing the matter privately with appropriate management figures.

Just as important, supporting down requires taking personal responsibility for decisions. A leader who passes the buck or blames others for problems is often referred to as “The Transparent Manager.” This type of person perpetuates an “us vs. them” norm in the organization, creates tensions, promotes splits among groups, and ultimately fosters low morale.

Challenging up and supporting down is important in two ways: You need to serve as a role model of someone who is effective at challenging up, and you also need to create an environment where employees at lower levels are willing to challenge you. Healthy challenges between levels lead to better decision-making and create motivation around the change.

It takes courage to challenge up, and it takes restraint not to engage in the blame, doom, and gloom prevalent during times of rapid change. However, failure to exercise such restraint or to take the personal responsibility to professionally challenge up leads only to short-term gratification and is not in the company’s long-term interest.

John Whitlow is vice president of human resources and training at Madison, VA-based country living products retailer Plow & Hearth.


  • Inventory management tips from the Nov./Dec. 1994 issue of O+F show that little has changed in the last decade. Among the tactics suggested: Make sure that you tell vendors clearly how you will measure reliability.

  • Share performance measurement results with vendors and take action based on the results. Reward the good performers; cease to do business with those who fail to perform well and then do not improve.

  • Be sure, if there are any problems, that you yourself are not the cause: “Don’t call a vendor with a change in packaging requirements after the vendor has started loading the truck.”

  • Once vendor reliability is established, you can work on reducing lead time, which will reduce the need for safety stock. Breakthrough improvements come from better planning, communication, and logistics, not from faster manufacturing.

  • Be aware that the vendor with the hot product may be the vendor most likely to have difficulty delivering that product reliably.

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