WikiLeaks Lessons for Business

The big story all week has been the WikiLeaks leaks of “confidential” data. Everyone has either been tantalized or traumatized by the titillating details of secret (or so they thought), behind-the-scenes government communications. It is sort of like The National Enquirer on steroids.

Those in government who have been exposed for offering colorfully blunt assessments of those they deal with in foreign governments are, to say the least, a little red-faced. This embarrassment is expressed in a call for those who exposed the “secrets” to be prosecuted and sent to Guantanamo and be held there till it snows. However, most legal experts are saying there is little that can be done from a legal standpoint because the information released is valid. It’s like the best defense against the crime of exposing truth is truth. (Nothing frustrates a bureaucrat more than truth!)

In an interesting twist, “fair and balanced” FOX News is now claiming that all of this may be a conspiracy engineered by Barack Obama who had promised “transparency in government” during his campaign for president. But, that may be going a bit too far. (FOX had to find some way to blame Obama for this fiasco!)

It seems that many are more disappointed that the released communications only divulge the Pentagon and the State Department’s dealing with foreign governments. Can you imagine the furor that would ensue if internal White House communications discussing different members of Congress were released? Or, even how much more fun would it be if the memos written by Obama’s political team discussing how to arrange to have Sarah Palin nominated by the Republicans to run against Obama in 2012, were made public. What scuttlebutt would we learn if every internal e-mail sent by members of Congress were released to the public? We might learn that, compared to what others have been doing, Charlie Rangel is a saint.

While much is being made about these WikiLeaks leaks, the reality for the most part is that this is more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. You knew that they must do it, but you really didn’t want to know. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, said on PBS, “This situation is catastrophic, but not serious.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also put the crisis in perspective when she reported calling foreign leaders to apologize for the release of the candid personal comments; their reaction was, “If you think what was said about us was bad, you should hear what we say about you!”

There is no doubt this brouhaha is a passing blip in an ocean of diplomacy that will have little lasting impact. In reality, it is just an opportunity for all of us to be brief voyeurs into the world of international diplomacy, much like the pretty girl who forgot to close the shades of her window as she undressed. We know we should not look, but we do anyway.

Fortunately, there is an important lesson for business to learn from this tempest in a teapot, and Associated Press writer  Jordan Robertson nailed it. His article (Companies, Beware: The Next Big leak Could be Yours) declared that “WikiLeaks release of secret government communications is a warning to the world’s biggest companies. Computer experts have warned for years about the threat posed by disgruntled insiders and by poorly crafted security policies, which gave too much access to confidential data.”

The message to corporations is that, if it can happen to the super-secret government, then it can happen to you. In essence corporations should look at the exposure of these government communications and say, “There but for the grace of God go we!”

But there is a very simple rule that business leaders and corporations can invoke that would significantly reduce this type of embarrassment. And that is by assuming that any and all internal communications, actions and decisions will be made public.

If you assume that all  communications and actions – either by management or the board of directors – will become public, then the focus will be on doing what is right, rather than what you can get away with. How many of the nefarious actions of management or boards of directors that have recently been exposed would have been prevented if these execs knew their actions would become public? For example, remember the issue regarding corporations “back-dating” stock options for executives? Would the back-dating have happened if the boards of those companies knew their malfeasance would be made public?

Many may find this philosophy too simplistic or even naive, but I would disagree. It should never be considered simplistic or naïve to always try to do the right thing. There certainly are communications and actions that justly need to be confidential, i.e. competitive advantages, new products or acquisition strategy, but the point is that these decisions and actions should be taken under the assumption that they will become public – even if they never are. If this philosophy were to be adopted then there would be much more right about what business does, rather than what they do wrong.

And the Moral of the Story . . .

It is a simple but effective rule: Make decisions, communicate and take actions under the assumption that they will become public. If you are worried about what the reaction of others will be if your actions are made public, then maybe you should not take them. Character, after all, is doing the right thing—even when no one is looking.

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