A leadership brand that includes social responsibility

The July/August issue of Harvard Business Review includes an article by Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood entitled “Building a Leadership Brand” that I believe contains lessons for learning and development professionals working toward ingraining more socially responsible practices into their organizations.

Ulrich and Smallwood argue that organizations must define leadership competencies that are meaningful to their unique brand promise — in other words, that the leadership competency model is not made up of generic competencies that might be applied to any organization. This has long been a troublesome point for me in working with organizations trying to define competency models. It’s hard work to define (and gain agreement on) a set of competencies that clearly articulate who WE are and how we should operate — but isn’t differentiation the core of competitive advantage? Why do we insist on believing that differentiating our products or services is meaningful, but it’s okay to develop generic leaders?

This point of view holds lessons for learning and development practitioners who may be looking for opportunities to contribute to sustainability or other socially responsible business practices. Ulrich and Smallwood argue — correctly — that a leadership competency model should be viewed as a translation of brand image into a vision of desired leadership thinking and behavior. And it must be defined in a manner that brings clarity to the meaning of that thinking or behavior in the context of each organization.

For an organization that wishes to make socially responsible practices part of the DNA of the organization, it follows that any substantive “brand” effort related to products or services should be backed up by similar “brand” expectations of socially responsible leadership. What exactly do we mean by “ethical” leadership, or leading with a triple-bottom line mind?

It’s also clear from the Ulrich/Smallwood piece (as well as my own experience) that the value of a well-crafted competency model is not really in the model itself. It’s in the leadership development activities that it inspires. The competency model provides the design specifications for learning and development practitioners to get really creative in constructing activities and support systems which can turn a socially responsible vision into actual leadership practice.