I am concerned that we may create too much hype around the concept of ‘responsible leadership’, sending it to a place where all leadership concepts go to die. Companies, especially the global ones, are shaping and reshaping more than just our economic landscapes, with diverse results. In this process much money is spent in pursuit of appropriate leadership development, which demands the imparting of cutting edge knowledge, methodologies and techniques. Leadership gurus eagerly comply using all the traditional thinking around leadership and drape it with the latest fashionable definition, namely responsible leadership.
Events like the Enron scandal and the economic crisis accentuated the need for the ‘new’ concept of ‘responsible leadership’. Yet, it is not new. The idea of leadership was never considered to be without responsibility. What is new is the “embeddedness” of responsible leadership in the complex issue of sustainability. It therefore reaches way beyond existing ways of thinking about leadership, and makes different leadership demands.
I want to view responsible leadership systemically and ethically: it is no longer about shareholder value but about stakeholder value. Being responsible to the multitude of stakeholders introduces not only complexity but also ethics. This reminds me of Kant’s Moral Law: We all live in a kingdom of ends in which we are both sovereign and subject. This responsibility is about morals and values guiding the relationships with many stakeholders with whom the responsible leader seeks, in an integrated way, to protect our economy (sustainable wealth creation), our humanity (optimising our humanness) and our environment.
Responsible leadership goes beyond compliance with the latest codes or identifying with a worthy sustainable cause; it is about internalising this integrated sense of being and then to act upon it in an appropriate fashion. This gives life to an organisation: it elevates people not only to experience a sense of aspiration, but to connect with what is good and morally right for a responsible citizen of the organisation and this world.
Responsible leadership is based on ethics and values, and allows the leader to be visionary, to be a steward of the environment – serving society with wisdom and courage, and acting as a responsible corporate and global citizen. This shifts the hype of identification with the ‘responsible leadership’ cause to leadership defined at the level of the character of the leader, leading and building organisations that grow in a sustainable fashion to the benefit of its many stakeholders.