What is responsible leadership?

Written by Grahame Broadbelt on 12 October 2016 in Features
Features

Grahame Broadbelt urges us to take responsible leadership decisions and do the right thing.

We are living in a time when leadership has never been more needed yet talent is, apparently, scarce. Photo credit: Fotolia
 

Reading time: 12 minutes.

There are lots of ways of modifying the word leadership to emphasise particular approaches to the challenge of being a leader. Almost all of these emphasise a positive, benign sort of leadership, the ‘servant’ leader, the ‘compassionate’ leader, the ‘tireless’ leader perhaps even the ‘mindful’ leader (we’ll save that one for another time). 
 
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But there is one adjective that seems to hold more power than most in summarising a type of leadership for modern times and that is the responsible leader. In this article I want to explore the idea of responsible leadership and its potential role in providing the sort of leadership we seem to be so short of.
 
I regard leadership as the defining issue of our age. Everywhere we look, from our companies, to our institutions and governments I see a leadership gap, a gap between what is needed and what is provided. When I look at the global issues that confront us as a species (climate change, energy, migration, financialisation, globalisation etc). 
 
I see a lack of effective leadership helping us to navigate the difficult territory ahead. Pick a topic and tell me I’m wrong.
 
Instead of getting what we need we seem to have to put up with the opposite. Again and again we are confronted with stories of leaders who have lined their own pockets or whose private lives expose a wide, hypocritical, gap with their public persona and stated positions.
 
One of the consequences of being constantly let down by leaders in authority is that we grow cynical and suspicious of power, and we give up hope of finding leaders who will keep their promises to us. At the same time such a process of disillusionment can also eat away at our own sense of agency, at our own capacity to stand up and take a leadership role or even a leadership stand.
 
Perhaps we worry that we too would be unable to reach the standards required and come up short. So we don’t try.
 
We are living in a time when leadership has never been more needed yet talent is, apparently, scarce.
 
In our companies we are investing more and more in leadership development activities, but – according to some studies at least – making little progress in closing the gap between what our companies think they need and what they are getting from their leaders.
 
Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends for 2015, for example, continues the story of previous years where leadership is cited at ‘important or v important’ by 90 per cent of respondents. Despite the clear priority leadership also represents the largest ‘capability gap’ in the same report (the difference between how important specific challenges are to companies set against how ready they are to meet those challenges); according to Deloitte the “capability gap for building great leaders has widened in every region in the world” covered by their survey.
 
So what is going on? And what does any of this have to do with responsible leadership?
 
In times of crisis perhaps it is a common and all too familiar response that we look to be saved by a hero. Are we unconsciously driven towards the ‘great man’ theory of leadership (yes it is mostly a man theory)?
 
Certainly when I ask companies what they mean when they say that they are suffering from a lack of leaders the conversation often takes a kind of ‘we don’t know what to do and we are kind of hoping that someone will show up who does’ line.
 
Others will talk about VUCA (the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous for the uninitiated) environments, about the collapse of strategy, the need for innovation, for resilience, for agility and more; they will say they need leaders who are able to successfully navigate this new and frightening world of uncertainty.
 
They will then produce a leadership competency framework that runs to three pages and a person specification to several more.
 
A cursory glance at the leadership literature tells us we have this leadership competency thing licked, certainly if quantity of material is any sort of measure.
 
My colleagues and I sat down and tried to collate all the competency frameworks suggested by many and several authors across many more books. We stopped counting at 226 leadership competencies because we started to fall into disagreement about whether ‘leverage diversity’ was the same as ‘makes inclusive decisions’ or whether it was different. Or whether it mattered.
 
For the record I have never met anyone whose personal, professional, emotional, and intellectual human-being-ness could be mapped effectively onto a competency framework. Most leadership frameworks I have seen effectively exclude everyone except Superman or Superwoman. Show me one person who has consistently, verifiably and to a shockingly good standard ‘made inclusive decisions’ or ‘leveraged diversity.’
 
When I see leadership competency frameworks designed by often highly competent people I just see an attempt to rationalise the need for a new ‘great man/woman.' It adds a bit of pseudo-science to the yearning to be saved.
 
None of this is to deny the existence of great men or great women. I have had the privilege to meet many and read some of their books. Some people are indeed superhuman, amazing, all round geniuses. But they are few. As Charles Handy, the famous management thinker and writer, himself a clear example of a great man, said several years ago.
 
“We cannot wait for great leaders to emerge for they are in short supply. We must light our own fires in the darkness.”
 
One of the ‘fires’ we can light is to try and consider more deeply what we mean by leadership and particularly what it is to be a responsible person and in turn someone who is responsible in their leadership.
 
In our companies, organisations and institutions, in our governments (and probably in our hearts) perhaps we continue to be gripped by stale ideas of what it is to be a leader and what we mean by leadership.
 
I agree with a good friend of mine who says that the only competencies required for leadership are the wisdom to see what must be done, the courage to do it and the compassion and humour to act for the good of all. Wisdom, courage, compassion and humour seem to me to embody an essential humanity and provide a great insight into what is required to act responsibly.
 
One of the things that many organisations miss in trying to build their leadership capacity is that leadership only ever manifests itself in action. It is in the action that we take that we become leaders (or not). We can ascribe to someone a leadership position, in a hierarchy, in a structure but they do not instantly become leaders. It is only when they take action that their leadership is manifest.
 
Leadership for me isn’t a person, or a set of character traits or positional authority. Leadership is a special and vital form of action. It isn’t leaders that are missing in our organisations, our companies and institutions. What is missing is effective leadership action. It isn’t heroes we are yearning for it is the need for the kind of action that makes a difference.
 
Such leadership action can and must come from everywhere, not just from those with positional or other types of authority. When I talk to companies about what is missing when they discuss their leadership agenda we eventually agree that it is leadership action that they need, from across their organisation, from everyone, everyday. 
 
So now we can begin to see the idea of responsible leadership a bit more clearly. If leadership is action then responsible leadership is responsible action. 
 
This isn’t the traditional definition of responsible leadership. For example the Financial Times defines responsible leadership as: "making decisions that, next to the interests of shareholders, also takes into account all the other stakeholders, such as workers, clients, suppliers, the environment, the community and future generations.”
 
Isn’t that just running businesses or organisations effectively? Why do we need a special name for simply doing the obvious things like caring about workers, clients, suppliers and the environment?
 
I don’t think we do. Many companies have been doing just that for decades and continue to bear the fruits of success. We can’t define responsible leadership as just the everyday work of running an effective organisation because to do so traps us into giving prizes or accolades to those organisations not actively being ‘irresponsible’. Collectively we need to raise the bar a lot higher than that.
 
Responsible leadership is taking responsible action. But who defines what is responsible and what is not? The most direct answer to my mind is that it is our conscience that guides us. 
 
That isn’t to deny all the great work that has been done on corporate ethics (the idea that, since the financial crisis not least, we need to reinforce the relationship between values and the process of value creation) and the role that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can play in demonstrating a commitment to acting on a set of organisational values. 
 
But conscience is important and something that we rarely discuss in organisations. It is an incredibly powerful force in helping us to navigate the complexity of our everyday lives. It provides us with an expression of our personal sense of what is right and what is wrong and helps guide our decisions and actions. While a deeper investigation into the nature of conscience is beyond the scope of this short piece I believe that it is central to the notion of responsible action.
 
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, frames conscience clearly in relation to responsible action. He said: “Every human has four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom...The power to choose, to respond, to change.”
 
It is this power to choose that is at the heart of the act of leadership, the decision to act (or not), to respond, and to change. Our guide to responsible leadership action can only be ourselves, what it is that we notice about the situation, what we notice about others and what we notice about ourselves in the moment of the decision to act.
 
We have seen all too often a ‘saying-doing’ gap in our organisations. In a world of mass communications we become familiar with the glib promises that organisations make to us as customers, as shareholders, as suppliers or citizens.
 
We also become familiar with an all too-frequent failure to match those promises in the delivery. So much so that we are so astonished when a company delivers on its promises that we talk about it endlessly at dinner parties (well, I do). Such a ‘saying-doing’ gap erodes trust in organisations, embeds cynicism across all stakeholders and frustrates the role of effective leadership action.
 
At an individual level a ‘saying-doing’ gap opens when we fail to act in line with our conscience. We are all familiar with this feeling, of letting ourselves down, of not meeting the standards we have set ourselves, of lacking in courage, in commitment, in determination, in grit.
 
Responsible leadership starts with us meeting our responsibility to ourselves, to live authentically for real.
 
In my coaching work I am often confronted by a whole range of excuses as to why it is impossible to act entirely in line with our conscience. Usually the problem lies elsewhere – with the boss, colleagues, the culture, the board. I never buy those excuses.
 
One of the reasons I don’t is because my experience tells me that one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, source of negative stress in our busy lives is eroding our sense of self-worth by regularly failing to act in line with what our conscience is telling us to do across the range of our responsibilities.
 
And negative stress reduces the capacity to perform at our best. And being able to get the best from our talented people is at the heart of the leadership challenge confronting organisations and reported regularly in surveys.
 
I also know that if the person I am coaching is a senior leader – with positional authority and leadership responsibilities – then the fact that they are not acting in line with their conscience is making it more difficult for everyone else to do so, because they, in turn, use my coachee as an excuse for their own failure to act responsibly.
 
This ‘passing the buck’ of responsibility is exactly how organisations composed of good people can end up failing to act in line with their espoused values and fail to act in line with the wider demands of society for businesses to act responsibly.
 
This is exactly why too many organisations have toxic cultures, are not great places to work and who struggle to elevate their productivity to even modest levels.
 
And it is exactly why we have a leadership crisis. Because if leadership is a special and vital form of action and if we cannot easily act in line with our conscience then we are likely not to act at all.
 
The opposite of responsible leadership isn’t irresponsible leadership it is inaction. It is good people doing nothing. In an organisational context it is talented people not performing. In a leadership context it is leaders not leading.
 
This is why the idea of responsible leadership matters. We need all our organisations, companies, institutions, government departments, charities, and community groups, to be the best expressions of our humanity.
 
After all, we created our organisations to serve us (not the other way around) and they are the primary vehicle we have for changing the world for the better. If our organisations are to help us meet the challenges that we face as a global society then they must act responsibly, be a force for good. Otherwise at best they are irrelevant and at worst they are getting in the way.
 
Ultimately, responsible leadership, like all leadership, is an act. Responsible organisations create the conditions through which their people can take leadership action and that action is in line with the unyielding values of the organisation and the moral conscience of the actor.
 
Responsible leadership is therefore acting with integrity in the moment of choice. Our organisations, our communities and our society all depend of the quality of those decisions and it is more important than ever that we get them right. 
 
About the author
 
Grahame Broadbelt is Head of Global Communications, Research and Development at Impact International. He can be contacted on +44 (0) 7976897449 or +44 (0) 20 7739 9433. 
 

We are living in a time when leadership has never been more needed yet talent is, apparently, scarce.

 

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