Leadership Responsibility

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The blog on 25th May began to think about professional responsibility. In this one I want to start to think about leadership responsibility, increasingly a focus in business studies (see “A Systematic Literature Review of Responsible Leadership: Challenges, Outcomes and Practices” Frangieh et al, Journal of Global Responsibility 2017, 2).

Following the credit crisis of 2007/8 several different leaders suggested that a new age of responsibility would be ushered in. For many reasons that age has not materialised. It raises major questions about what the nature of this responsibility might be, and these have implications both for governance and how we train for leadership responsibility.

Is it about getting systems of governance and regulation right- ‘this will never happen again’? This must be partly so, in order to provide frameworks of broad meaning, and expectations of practice. Hence the continued development of codes, reports and legal and professional regulation. The danger of relying solely on systems, however, is that they can take away from individual responsibility. We do what the code says and remain responsible for specific tasks but do not for anything else. Hence, cases like Mid Staffs hospital trust show regulators and professional groups responsible for their narrow area, but not for the overall purpose and project of health care. Enron had a well-developed ethical code, but did not practice responsibility. Regulation and codes are important but no enough.

Is responsibility about getting the moral foundations of practice right? Some argue that responsible leadership is based in values leadership or transformational leadership approaches. These approaches are important, and very much focused in how moral values, expressed in principles such as justice and respect, provide direction. However, responsibility, as idea and practice, cannot be defined in terms simply of moral values.

Moral values are important to any understanding of responsibility but have two dangers. A moral value can be used to bad ends. Even the value of care, for instance, has been used historically to confine the role of women; effectively subjugating them to a socially determined role of care for family. But also values, especially principles such as respect or justice do not determine substantive meaning. This requires critical reflection on what the principle actually means in practice context.  Key to this is the capacity to test prejudice, and critique ideology and practice.

Perhaps then leadership responsibility is about getting Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects right. Some see this ideally as about the practice of philanthropy, a business doing something for the greater good. Again, this is admirable, but not necessarily about the practice of responsibility. There are too many examples of ‘green washing’, where CSR looks good but does not encourage responsible practice in everyday life. BP, for instance, had what appeared to be a strong sustainability framework in place, but did not act responsibly in the Deepwater Horizon case.

Is responsibility about obligation to a contract for a project? ‘I have agreed to be responsible for this project in return for’ compensation of some kind. The leader should be judged on the targets hit, or not. Owning one’s particular role and the agreed targets related to that is important. However, once more it is not sufficient. In 1978 Ted Kennedy pushed the representative of Nestle to give an account of the company’s responsibility when breast milk substitute was being marketed in the third world, i.e. when the firm knew that poverty and unclean water would lead to the death of infants. The reply was ‘we can’t have that responsibility, sir’, and even as the representative said it he knew there was something wrong; leading, soon afterwards, to an apology.  Nestle at that point wanted to restrict responsibility for consequences strictly to the action of marketing and purchasing, and not to the context of that practice. Anything beyond that, Nestle argued initially, was the responsibility of the individual or the healthcare system or the government.

Many philosophies argue that it is not possible to extricate oneself from the interactive web that any business is involved in, something exacerbated by global social media which continually raises questions about business and its relation to politics, or the unintended consequences of business practice in relation to human rights . The dynamic of this is important to notice.

The defence which appeals to ignorance about unintended consequences, and therefore denying responsibility for those consequences, has a very short shelf life. As Nike understood well, once you know what the unintended consequences are the actor/firm becomes partly responsible for these if there is a failure to change practice.

There are two motivations for taking responsibility in such cases

  • The first is survival. Once the wider public realises what has happened there is danger of customer boycott, as in the Nestle case.
  • The second is about reputation and authentic leadership, i.e. that the organization has recognised the issues, learned and changed practice. In Nestle’s case this included working with other organization who shared responsibility for infant healthcare.

Responsibility then involves something about the character of the leader and organization, including the capacity engage with ideas, consequences and the practice of judgement in relation to context, i.e. the social and physical environment in which the organization operates. Exercising such judgement demands great care, not least an awareness of legal understandings of the term responsibility and the effect that an uncritical acceptance of responsibility might have on an organization.

The danger, on the other hand, of denying responsibility, viewed narrowly as culpability, might, as the Nestle case shows have equally bad consequences.  Denial of responsibility, for the action, about the significance of an action (‘it was just locker-room talk’), of awareness of the action, and so on, like the argument from ignorance, can only work once if there are substantive issues that need to be addressed.

So, like the professional responsibility blog, leadership responsibility involves something about the very capacities and character of the leader:

  • Does the leader have a grasp of intellect; does she own her own ideas?
  • Does the leader understand the value of her practice- both the practice her institution/profession and the practice of being a leader?
  • Is the leader aware of and responsive to the social and physical environment in which she operates?
  • Is the leader aware of and responsive to the complex environment in her organization?
  • Does the leader have a grasp of the key moral values which provide a framework for practice?
  • Is the leader able to give an account of these things to support and develop significant practice?

This suggests that responsible leadership involves at least three elements:

  • A learning/teaching strand, much like the last blog, enabling the development of autonomy and responsiveness in the organization.
  • A directional strand enabling the organization to determine and develop its direction.
  • Relational strand, which involves awareness and responsiveness to the wider social and physical environment.

Responsibility in all this is as much epistemic, awareness of self and society, as it is moral; as much psychological, awareness of dynamics and the capacity to listen, as intellectual, grasp of ideas; as much about communication, and related skills, as about grasp of value and purpose.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Leadership, Governance and Global Responsibility

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