What’s Responsible Leadership?

One year later since the beginning of the powerful #Metoo movement, at least 200 prominent men have lost their jobs after public allegations of sexual harassment. Wow. So what’s responsible leadership?

I recently attended the General Assembly of the Global Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI). The questions asked at this event sought to understand how to envisage the emergence of a new generation of responsible leaders. In context of #Metoo movement, I thought the concept could also have new implications.

The notion of responsible leader does not only refer to the CEO of a company by the way, but also includes more broadly the management, and the population of senior executives. I am very often asked by clients or cynical students to provide an answer to this question because the concept of responsible leadership seems so difficult to define. Remember Brutus contributing to the killing of Caesar: You become a leader because you kill the father…

I guess there is no definitive answer and contextual elements may shape different ways to define and encourage different kind of responsible leadership. But I’ve come to conclude with 3 questions, which I believe can be a good basis for reflection overall:

Context and Acceptability

Is the leader able to understand the socio-economic environment in which his / her organization operates? This includes what is acceptable and what is not, but also the non-financial factors (environmental, social, etc.) that impact financial performance. The leader must decrypt increasingly complex situations. For example, different tax practices may be quite legal but may have to be laboriously justified in a context of increasingly declining acceptability to them. A responsible leader is a decision-maker who pays taxes where he creates wealth. Digital companies, but also increasingly consumer brands, will have to fine-tune their understanding of these contexts in order to fully understand what will and will not remain acceptable from the point of view of their customers and stakeholders.

For #Metoo, there aren’t any grey areas in context and acceptability. Laws are very clear about harassment in general, and sexual harassment in particular. #Metoo is good to get the basics right: a responsible leader is first and foremost respectful of the law…

Ability of Management Systems to Incite Accountability

Exploring multiple #Metoo cases is fascinating. These cases have in common the multiplication of ethical abuses in the face of which close colleagues remain quiet. These cases also have overall in common the concentration of power with ineffective safeguards.

To what extent does the leader evolve in an environment that encourages him/her to be responsible? Does its Board of Directors question it? Do the manager’s performance measurement systems take into account his or her ability to act responsibly? Is he promoted and rewarded for his responsible performance? Management systems shape responsible leaders if the following conditions are met:

  • Already, governance bodies need to have the expertise and resources to challenge, verify and amend leaders’ decisions on strategic and ethical issues. Today, despite the responsibilities on their shoulders, many Boards of Directors offer neither the diversity of expertise nor the operational relevance to carry out this critical element of their mandate. A responsible leader must be supervised by control bodies offering a diversity of points of view that allow the complexity to be deciphered as effectively as possible.
  • Secondly, management systems and in particular operational decision-making processes must not only include a nominal responsibility of decision-makers (who is accountable for what), but above all associate it with factual monitoring to verify commitments. Monitoring indicators regularly verified by a third party ensure that the manager has not only exercised his responsibility to make decisions, but can also justify their proper execution. When the operational reality diverges, these systems make it possible not only to confront the leader with his/her responsibilities, but also to offer a space for dialogue to adapt decisions to an operational reality different from what had initially been imagined. A responsible leader must move in an operational environment that offers a clear framework of responsibility but also agility in questioning and adapting to different operational realities.
  • Finally, it is essential that the performance measurement of the responsible leader includes a long-term dimension. It is not enough to reward a leader who completes a project on time and on budget. For example, this same leader must also justify that when the keys to the site are handed over, there will be no time bomb that will jump at the figure of the successor: bad construction that will collapse in the coming months, dissatisfaction among stakeholders that will pollute the daily lives of operational staff every morning, pollution that will be invisible to the naked eye and that will cost millions unfunded in a few years… And obviously, the ethical exemplarity that will shape the way teams continue to conduct themselves in the manager’s path.

Leadership and ability to build buy-in

A quality that is often forgotten, but essential in the case of a leader. To what extent does he or she embody the values of respect and exemplarity? We rarely see teams with impeccable ethics when the leader has behaved like a bad guy…

The responsible leader must create exemplarity and thus generate support. In “leader”, there is the notion of “leadership”. The responsible leader knows his or her business, sector and industry well. When he/she knows that sexual or other forms of harassment are common practices in the indusrey, the responsible leader questions the established order. He or she questions practices from another time that are just no longer adapted to his/her sector. He/she adapts the model. He/she is setting an example. It thus arouses the support of the sector. A responsible leader can accept to be a rebel in a way even if this may impact career badly. A responsible leader never regret to have breached the rules for ethical reasons. A genuine responsible leader find it difficult to keep the role building buy-in to maintain practices neither compliant with law nor aligned with the kind of image he/she wants to convey. A Responsible Leader has an ego to be nurtured with positive elements.

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Author of several books and resources on business, sustainability and responsibility. Working with top decision makers pursuing transformational changes for their organizations, leaders and industries. Working with executives improving resilience and competitiveness of their company and products given their climate and human right business agendas. Connect with Farid Baddache on Twitter at @Fbaddache.

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