More unpacking – responsible leadership

Yesterday’s post highlighted some findings of a research paper — presented at the Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB ) Conference — that looked at the characteristics and practices of the top leaders (CEOs, founders) of successful, socially responsible businesses. I would suggest that these characteristics and practices take shape throughout the organization, among individuals in formal in informal leadership roles. And in fact we may be doing a disservice by consistently falling into the trap of only researching the mindsets of CEOs and top executives.

What comes out of the research of 20 top leaders is the link between several elements (my words here):

  • These leaders have a strong sense of purpose and a set of values related to doing social good. (Values driven)
  • They have developed what the paper’s authors refer to as an “expanded worldview” — deeper insight into the linkages between social, political, ecological and commercial systems. (Systems thinkers)
  • They actively engage in more open dialogues with a broad range of stakeholders, pursuing “fringe” stakeholders for ideas and beneficial relationships. (Empathic, continuous learners)
  • They innovate – creatively repurposing their business, and are comfortable with discovery, allowing new ideas, processes, and practices emerge and help guide the organization to its best opportunities for success. (Innovators)

Each of these themes — values driven, systems thinking, empathy, continuous learning, innovation — resonates with themes I found in interviewing socially-responsible managers who operated deeper in the organization, below the senior executive level. This becomes an important point when you consider — as the authors of the socially-responsible leadership study point out — that a developing view of leadership is one which “suggests that egoism, reliance on formal authority, and an emphasis on the individual leader as all-powerful are replaced by the image of a leader as a process collaborator — an active participant in a complex, emergent process.” (Cox & Mirvis, 2006)

This, to me, suggest two questions.

  • If successful, socially responsible enterprises are dependent on leadership capabilities that are distributed widely across the organization, are the themes note here — values driven, systems thinking, empathy, continuous learning, innovation — central to those capabilities?
  • If so, then how do we accelerate the development of these capabilities — with the goal of applying them to the organization’s desired social impact?