Mirror mirror on the wall, is responsible leadership the fairest of them all?

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By Professor Kiran Trehan, Professor of Leadership and Enterprise Development, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business Associate
Department of Management, University of Birmingham

Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world – Nelson Mandela

The notion of ‘responsible leadership’ as a motto for various policies seems to be ever present in the public sphere of many businesses, local communities and public life, but does this mean that we have been developing irresponsible leaders?

Responsible leadership has achieved shibboleth status in many organisations; a social good and a source of richness, a resource to be welcomed. The message advocated is that responsible leadership enhances performance and makes the workplace more socially inclusive. The continuous search for new and more diverse responsible leaders is driven by the need to cultivate contemporary leadership skills that are able to respond to the changing social, political and economic demographics. Businesses are under increasing pressure to ensure that they are representative of the communities in which they serve.

Irresponsible or responsible leadership

Where have all the responsible leaders gone? The desire for responsible leadership has never been in such high demand, with Brexit, the financial crisis, the shifting political landscape, and disclosure in business, public services and cultural institutions highlighting the consequences and impact of irresponsible leadership. In parallel to this, the United Nations highlights the importance of responsible leadership in achieving sustainable and equitable prosperity, as well as being crucial to developing a fair and equal society.

So where did it all go wrong? Do we continue to turn a blind eye to irresponsible leadership, or is responsible leadership just more palatable because it challenges dominant discourses? Can responsible leadership genuinely translate into new practice?

Our desire for change inevitably interweaves with the complexity of attempting to make change happen. Leaders in many organisations are operating in complex times, the global reach of business and internationalisation requires us to think about how leadership is cultivated.

Our research is shining a light on the importance of understanding the context of irresponsible leadership. Irresponsible leadership cannot be dismissed or overly simplified as being about a few bad apples, or that it is connected to a misuse of power, authority or stature. Irresponsible leadership takes place because we are in denial that the world needs future leaders who are diverse and who think, feel and act differently in business, political and social life. Responsible leadership is not sustainable without a consideration of the emotional, relational and political dynamics that underpin leadership; it’s not a neutral activity that occurs in isolation from the socio-economic circumstance within which it exists.

So is responsible leadership the fairest of them all? Now that’s an interesting dilemma. What responsible leadership asks us to think about is how we address some of the significant challenges, such as globalisation, disruptive technology, political uncertainty and environmental challenges ahead of us. How do we develop a more inclusive society which is not about short-term profiteering (economically and socially), but about eradicating inequality and leveraging leadership to tackle the big issues relating to poverty, discrimination, economic growth, sustainable business and communities? This is what our research is tackling. Responsible leadership is as much about the three P’s – passion, persuasiveness and persistence – as it is about inclusivity, moral and ethical judgements as well as place and purpose.

During Responsible Business Week we have a responsibility to ask the unaskable questions which are not simply related to the financial and political crisis or the plethora of voices challenging capitalism. Responsible leadership needs to put the intellectual evidence to work if we are to take action and make a difference in the communities we work and live in. This requires cultural diversity, entrepreneurial mind-sets, innovation and imagination. As Abraham Lincoln said, you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. If responsible leadership is going to deliver on its promises we need learn from our past and reimagine the future by ensuring responsible leadership is not a standalone issue, but interconnected to the chain of political, social and economic change.

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