Lessons in Leadership: Integrating Courage, Vision, and Innovation for the Future of Sustainable Fisheries

Transparency, the Clear Window of Leadership

Larry A. Nielsen

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781934874608.ch48

Angelo Secchi was an Italian cleric and scientist who lived from 1818 to 1878. He should be called a Renaissance man. He was a world expert in astrophysics, inventing spectroscopic instruments to characterize the nature of stars (and became the first man to affirm that the sun was, in fact, a star). But his skills went much farther—he discovered comets, mapped Mars, surveyed the Appian Way, developed a meteorograph for recording weather data, was astronomer for the Pope, taught in England and the United States, and probably made a pretty tasty spaghetti Bolognese.

It was in 1865, however, that he invented something truly important for fisheries—the Secchi disk. He devised a round white disk, 12-inches in diameter, that he could lower on a rope or long pole. The depth at which a person could no longer see the disk was called the Secchi depth, serving as a measure of water clarity or transparency. The all-white 12-inch disk is still the standard used in marine ecosystems, but limnologists use a modified version—8 inches in diameter and broken into four quadrants, alternating in color between black and white.

The Secchi disk, used to measure water transparency, is my metaphor for the importance of transparency in leadership. Just as water quality improves when the water is more transparent, so does leadership improve when an organization and its leaders are transparent about their work and decisions. Leaders who are not transparent—who hide information and obscure their decision making—breed a culture of distrust, ambiguity, and marginal performance in their organizations and among their colleagues. But leaders who are transparent—openly, freely, and accessibly offering data and logic—create an atmosphere of integrity, trust, understanding, confidence, and a shared sense of purpose.

In the mid-1980s, I took a sabbatical year from my faculty position at Virginia Tech to test whether I would rather work in a fisheries agency. I spent the year as a special assistant in the Bureau of Fisheries of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. One of my tasks was to devise a better system for sharing information about heavy-metal contamination of fish. At the time, mercury contamination in fish flesh was a big issue in the upper Midwest, largely because salmonids, which bioaccumulate heavy metals in their fatty tissue, had become major fisheries in the Great Lakes and other large lakes and rivers.