Pick the right person to share a secret with

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 1995, 12:00am

I ONCE conducted an informal survey of mid-level employees about what they regarded as the single most critical attribute of a leader they would be willing to follow. The answers generally focused on qualities such as brain-power, courage and fairness. A leader, I was told, had to be smarter than the troops, tough but fair in making decisions, willing to take risks and cool in a crisis.

It was hard to argue with those answers, but when I asked several CEOs what they regarded as the most important requirement for people in leadership positions, they said the same thing: the ability to maintain a confidence.

Qualities you never see It's a fascinating distinction. The troops admire their bosses for the qualities that everyone can see - brains, guts and grace under pressure. The bosses, on the other hand, believe their authority stems from a quality few people can recognise.

There's a reason for this. The ability to keep a confidence is not obvious. It doesn't call attention to itself. You only notice it when it's absent - that is, when someone has betrayed your trust.

But I'm convinced that, over time, the ability to keep a secret provides would-be leaders with more subtle benefits than almost any other attribute. For one thing, it makes you better informed. People are more willing to tell you their 'secrets' when they know you won't share them with anyone else. This is true whether the secrets are coming to you from your customers, clients, bosses or subordinates - that is, from high, low or to the side. Given the choice, people will always gravitate more to a tight-lipped individual than to a gabby one.

If the ability to earn people's trust doesn't define a leader, I don't know what does. Developing this attribute shouldn't be tough. In theory, all you have to do is keep your mouth shut. When you find yourself beginning sentences with 'I shouldn't be telling you this ...', stop yourself and rethink the consequences. People may appreciate the fact that you are sharing confidential information with them, but, at the same time, they're wondering what secrets you are sharing about them.

Keeping your mouth shut is nice in theory, but the reality is most people can't do it. In a society where information is power and the value of a piece of information is in direct proportion to how few people know it, people think they have to give out information in order to get information.

The irony of this, 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours' philosophy is that it's not true. In my experience, the less information you give the more people entrust with you - precisely because they know it won't go beyond you.

Who would you rather turn to with a confidential problem? Someone who'll keep your secret or someone who'll spread it around? And what difference does it make if that person doesn't share a secret of his or her own with you? There's no quid quo pro with secrets.

Managing the maze of contradictions I realise that not everyone can keep a secret, that not every secret is meant to be kept (where would political journalists be without leaked information?), and that not everything should remain a secret (particularly when revealing it helps someone without doing anyone else harm).

My solution is to be extremely discriminating about the people with whom I share a confidence or proprietary information and even more discriminating about the people with whom I share someone else's secrets. The former is a tight circle of friends and confidantes; the latter is an even tighter circle.

In theory, this, too, should be an easy policy to practise, but reality catches up with a lot of people. A friend of mine calls this the difference between 'gabbing up and gabbing down'. As he sees it, the problem is not so much the betrayal of a confidence but rather that the betrayal is done with the wrong person.

It's one thing to share privileged information with an individual who could benefit from it and who will not abuse the confidence. In my friend's words, that's 'gabbing up'. You've betrayed a confidence, but with a defined purpose and within a very small circle of people. You've controlled the leak. No harm, no foul.

It's a much more serious offence to share that information with people who don't matter to you or who have no need to know or who cannot be relied upon to keep it to themselves. This is 'gabbing down'. It comes in many forms, nearly all of them variations on 'I know something that you don't know'. For example, you want to impress someone that you are 'in the know'.

In essence, you are trafficking in gossip. There's no defined purpose to your little betrayal. No one benefits from it. Worst of all, you're not controlling the leak. When you don't know to whom you're talking, you may as well be talking to the world.