Of managing information and eliminating leaks

The United States is grappling with the issue of leaks from the Whitehouse which undermine the institution of the presidency itself. As information becomes very freely available, this is a very interesting and controversial topic in itself.  Based on discussions and interviews, this post attempts to address 3 questions:

  • Why leaks happen in the first place
  • Impact of the leaks
  • How these can be controlled

Preliminary findings below:

Why leaks happen – 7 key reasons:

  1. Dysfunctional team and dissatisfaction – the primary cause of leaks is a lack of a cohesive leadership team that has ideological divides and where the vision and values not in sync. Cohesion stems from structure, discipline and routines. And the leadership team requires functioning with a single vision, executing on strategy (seen as reinforcing choices) and common ideology and values. Where this is not the case, there is often in-fighting and differing agendas leading to leaks.


  1. Nature – often controversial but inadvertently despite best selection criteria, each team will come upon individuals who by their nature like to leak information. Reasons can be many including a sense of achievement, low self-esteem, conflicts with others etc.


  1. Trust deficit and high ambition – the trust deficit can come from a dysfunctional team (as mentioned in point 1). Equally, this can come from extremely ambitious individuals on the team who may feel that they are far ahead of the team.


  1. Power struggles leading to vengeance – power struggles in organizations are common. Where power struggles take place, it is important to consider aftereffects for those that continue with the organization. Individuals tend to be associated with one particular team or manager and after a power struggle, vengeance is a very natural reaction often carried out by team members still loyal to individuals.


  1. Anger and helplessness including denial of access – anger is another reason for leaks. The anger at times can stem from helplessness including lack of a channel to have thoughts heard.


  1. Careerists – some folks view the current role as a stepping stone to a larger position where they will need a sympathetic press. As such they start leaking / acting as sources to build network


  1. Lack of aggressive responses to earlier leaks – when there is no aggressive response to leaks it is viewed as something that can be gotten away with and the person leaking information feels even more empowered.


The Impact

  • Loss of competitive advantage
  • Dysfunctional team and lack of trust
  • Deviation from vision, mission and strategy
  • Ability for others to play against each other
  • Impact to culture (which in the long run is very hard to reverse)


The impact is summed up best by former US president Bill Clinton who required a new Chief of Staff namely Leon Panetta. When Panetta refused stating he could be more effective in his current role as Director of OMB Clinton replied, “no one is going to remember even the greatest OMB director is if the Whitehouse is falling apart.”


How leaks can be eliminated

  1. Team – discipline in the team is critical. This occurs at the hiring stage itself where in addition to qualifications, career goals, values and ideology must be considered. This has to be cemented with structure and clear boundaries. For instance, Southwest airlines popularly asked pilot applicants to relax and interview in shorts. During this they gauged how the candidates reacted and were able to determine a good fit with their relaxed and fun-loving team atmosphere.


  1. Message – organizations have a mission and vision statement but often this ends up being only words on paper. Within and outside the organization, folks must be reminded constantly on how each action is aligned with the mission and vision and strategy. Messaging must be coordinated, consistent and clear. For instance, saying “employees come first” but then not addressing issues of adequate restrooms for staff sends two very different messages. And these different messages in turn lead to negative talk, gossip and leaks.

An example that comes to mind is firms such as McKinsey or Goldman Sachs where they hire top performers, focus on an “up or out” policy and consistently price themselves on the higher end of the market – all of which are reinforcing choices.


  1. No off the record comments – the habit of speaking “off-the-record” to reporters must be discouraged. A core team can be authorized to speak on the record and rather than make “off the record comments” the interviews/questions can be declined. If managed well this actually leads to more mystique and greater coverage — Apple very successfully applied this strategy


  1. Put out a steady stream of content – this is an often overlooked item. Leaks often occur when there are not enough details on a subject that is known publicly. A steady stream of content coming out from the organization helps minimize this. Handling this is also an art. For instance if a company is considering accessing capital markets and there are always questions on this – content that highlights what kind of companies access public markets, the nature of public companies and the pride of going public can be spoken about.


  1. Everyone speaks the same voice, questions to be anticipated – in the team all should speak with the same voice (both in actions and in words). This can be reinforced by “skip a level meetings” – where folks can get to her directly from the CEO/department head. If the message is absolutely the same it builds the credibility of the entire team.

As a personal example, during a project with a highly unionized airline, I had a chance to work with a new executive team promised better relations with unions. However, this was not enforced all the way to frontline managers (who had been employed for several decades) often leading to clashes. During this time, leaks became the norm with significant information getting out in the public domain.


  1. The head of communications empowered by the Chief Executive and not designated as a head of communications – the very term head of communications now carries with it a negative connotation. Ideally a person from the core executive team if not the CEO himself/herself should be positioned as the company spokesperson and this lends significant credibility.


  1. Influence of all mediums to be considered – the growing influence of new mediums such as blogs, social media and video must be considered.


There are some firms who put out grand messages on their website about their product/service but conducting a simple googlesearch reveals just the opposite. For instance, in the travel space, if hotels are advertising certain features – these are easily caught if one reads reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor, Orbitz etc – especially if there are several negative reviews which are then aggregated into an overall rating for the product/service.




Like in a leaking vessel, for the safety and stability of the vessel leaks must be addressed immediately. No matter how small the leak, it should not be overlooked as doing this can lead to long term turmoil — akin to death by a thousand cuts.

With the advent of smartphones coupled with social media – messages, photographs, recordings, documents and video can be recorded and distributed in a matter of seconds. Thus if there are structural weaknesses in 3 areas of team, process and enforcement, leaks become inevitable.

As a final thought one often hears about “strategic leaks” – however our conclusion was that there is no such thing. However, that seems to be a whole topic in itself.

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