Responsible Leadership in the Future of Business

In this episode:

To effectively combat the complex issues facing society today – social inequalities, climate change, sustainability, and more – we need leaders across all sectors and industries who are committed to driving change through responsible leadership.

Responsible leadership, at its core, is about prioritizing the well-being of society and the environment and strategically planning for long-term outcomes that benefit the collective. However, the pursuit of responsible leadership can often conflict with individual and organizational economic interests, and it requires the courage to challenge conventional business practices and the skills to generate organizational buy-in.

For this episode hosted by Bryan Benjamin, Executive Director of the Ivey Academy, we’re joined by guests: Kanina Blanchard, Assistant Professor of Management Communications & General Management at Ivey Business School; Zen Tharani, Ivey Executive Coach; and Corrie Stone-Johnson, Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy at University at Buffalo. Together, our panelists explore the importance and implications of practicing responsible leadership and share tips on how to navigate the challenges leaders face when embodying responsible leadership at work. 

 

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Q&A

During the livestream event, we had many audience members asking questions in the Q&A and chat that we weren't able to address live during the event. Below, we provide some answers to questions from the session.

 

Q: I am concerned that some leaders, in order to appear responsible, are taking or acquiescing in decisions they don't really believe in and may even consider counterproductive to the goals motivating the choice.  Your thoughts? 

A: Responsible Leadership isn’t a set of actions, but a mindset and practice in itself where the individual authentically and actively seeks to create positive outcomes for others. This process actively involves doing the work of listening to and seeking out perspectives where you might have blind spots.  

Some leaders will take action or present themselves as responsible leaders through virtue signalling without really thinking about the people who will be impacted by the decisions. True responsible leaders prioritize the people who will be impacted by their decisions ahead of everything else, and see to continuously improve how they serve this group. 

 

Q: In order to embody this concept into corporate governance, how do we protect what we would like to see as a responsible leader from being moved on by a board when profits aren't the largest determinant of success? How do we change the assessment of success? 

A: There are a few things that can be put into place to protect and further encourage responsible leadership. Keeping your values and organizational purpose at the center of all operations is key to continuing to work toward the collective vision. It's important to shift what metrics organizational success is measured against, which might involve the process of seeking new data inputs, and really reconsider how to assess performance outside of financial metrics. Further, creating an organizational culture and implementing incentive structures that celebrate and reward responsible decision making can further support and increase responsible leadership. 

 

Q: How does altruistic leadership – sacrificing corporate resources and profitability for the sake of the common good – jive with the capitalism that Western societies and capital markets have been built upon? Capital market regulators require timely release of corporate financial information for the sake of transparency, which has brought about a shorter and shorter time lag between realization of financial results and the release of them and thus the sharper focus of the very short-term results, how would that jive with the longer-term perspective required of this "responsible leadership"? 

A: Prioritizing the collective good through Responsible Leadership often involves challenging and subverting the norms associated with our current economic and societal systems, which often are directly at odds with the core principles of Responsible Leadership. The simple truth is that individuals and organizations who take on the task of responsible decision making are likely to experience scrutiny and challenges within the current system until we’re able to societally create a system that celebrates and rewards more altruistic leadership. 

As discussed in the session, responsible leadership in our current society becomes a bit of a balancing act where leaders have to find ways to practice decision-making that creates better outcomes for the collective while also practicing judgement and timing for how to use their influence most effectively. 

 

Q: The issue with "doing the right thing" will inevitably come down to the vast difference in what everyone thinks what the "right" thing is. a lot of it is as a result of the knowledge gap and bridge perspectives which will take a lot of time and patience. What can leaders do to help balancing making progress vs. not leaving people behind? 

A: Most important to this practice is to make sure you’re listening to perspectives from a wide range of perspectives and identities, especially when our understanding of what is “right” constantly grows and evolves as we learn more. More important than being “perfectly right” in every instance is for leaders t0 seek out diverse perspectives and make the most responsible decision possible with the available information, being ready to take accountability for any deficits in their decisions, and then move forward with the mentality for continuous improvement on their leadership journey. 

 

Q: Do you have research regarding how much responsible leadership is being practiced? 

A: There isn’t a lot of research available that clearly shows how much responsible leadership is being practiced, but Maak and Pless are the key researchers in this space. 

 

Q: I understand responsible leadership has to take a long-term perspective, one thing I struggle with though is defining how long that time frame should be. Is there a finish line? 

A: Responsible leadership, from a personal or organizational perspective, is about shifting your mindset and practice to prioritizing the good of the collective. There is no finish line, and the strongest organizations are those that engage in continuous improvement.  

Timelines and goals, within this framework, therefore are very context-dependent. For example, an organization engaging in responsible leadership might hold the overarching value of improving environmental sustainability. How this might manifest is setting a target for when they want their operations to reach net-zero, which would inevitably have a deadline. Further, tools like community check-ins can provide a sense of how far one has come. 

 

Additional Resources

Leading beyond profit: Navigating the shift to responsible leadership in modern business (Ivey IMPACT)

Moving Toward More Responsible Decision-Making by Kanina Blanchard (Cutter - AMPLIIFY)

Leader Character Framework by Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz (Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School)

Podcast Transcript

KANINA BLANCHARD: People are brought together from different parts of the organization. And the question is, if this is a value, how does it look in practice? How does it sound in practice? How does it feel in practice?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SEAN ACKLIN GRANT: Welcome to Leadership in Practice, your source for new research, insights, and practical advice on critical issues in business, presented by the Ivey Academy. As a global society, we face a growing number of wicked problems. Businesses have long been seen as a source of those problems but are now realizing the possibility and responsibility to be part of the solutions. The idea of responsible leadership brings traditional business priorities into question, putting long-term social outcomes above profit.

Today, we're joined by Kanina Blanchard, Assistant Professor of Management Communications and General Management at Ivey Business School; Zen Tharani, Ivey Executive Coach and Management Consultant; and Corrie Stone-Johnson, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at University at Buffalo. Together, our panelists explore the importance and implications of practicing responsible leadership.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: I am so excited for this conversation. So I'm going to start out with a very short yet complex question, and I'm going to you first, Kanina. What is responsible leadership?

KANINA BLANCHARD: It's such an important question because in the last 20 years or 25 years, we've seen so many fiery adjectives placed beside the word "leadership." And the challenge becomes-- well, is this just another fiery adjective? Let's just add the word "responsible." And who can argue that that's a good thing? I think where we want to really start the discussion, though, is that it was around the turn of-- can I say the century? That just seems like a long time ago.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: [LAUGHS]

KANINA BLANCHARD: In the early 2000s, what we started to see is the development of this interest in responsible leadership, not just as an adjective but as a theory, a framework that tried to differentiate itself from the theories that came before it. And one of the realities is that it is a work in progress. It's a build.

And so for those folks who know a lot about stakeholders and stakeholder theories and CSR, for example, it's not that responsible leadership abandons those. It builds on it. And if I was to say what is the real difference, I would state it this way-- other forms of leadership talk about doing more good and less harm, but the idea is that you or your organization will still benefit from the good that you do.

With responsible leadership, it's a lot more real than that. And what I mean by that is, if you really understand the tenet of responsible leadership, the idea is that we as leaders in informal or formal roles actually see ourselves as part of the community, as part of the environment, as part of society. And that changes the calculus. It's not that we're going to do good for somebody else and we're just going to offer money, for example, or we're going to do a nice project.

It is about recognizing that we have a responsibility to consider stakeholders, which, in doing so, may mean that we would make decisions that may not, in the short term or the long term even, necessarily be good for the bottom line. And that is a differentiator that can be scary to even think about in the world that we live in today.

But it is really the idea of elevating stakeholders along with profit and recognize that decisions cannot be short-term revenue-driven but, in fact, long-term and in the good of the collective. And trying to move in that direction-- as I'm sure we're going to talk about-- it's not easy. It's not easy for organizations, and it's definitely not easy for the leaders who have to make choices that are going to put them in the middle of contestation and tension.

And that's why in my work-- and I have the privilege of teaching leading responsibly to some of our graduate students here at Ivey-- it is really about making the choice and learning how to be able to move forward and make those really difficult decisions.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: Now, thank you for giving some really important context to it. And I'll pick up on your point around the number of different contributors that are connected and in a broader ecosystem. And understanding the impact isn't necessarily just one person to one person. It's understanding the broader universe of individuals and contributors who are involved in any sort of one situation that we might encounter.

Corrie, I'm really fascinated about some of the research that you've been doing. And I've been doing a little bit of homework myself, and I'm going to certainly dig in a whole bunch more now that I've discovered some of your work. But you have specifically studied the area of responsible leadership, specifically in the context of education. What got you into this field and, specifically, down this specific path?

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: So several years ago, I was part of an international team that was looking at schools in the United Kingdom that were performing beyond expectations. The UK has a very rigid system for an algorithm, if you will, for figuring out how schools should be performing based on the challenges that they and their communities face. And so we were looking-- we were curious about schools that were doing better than the data would lead people to expect.

At the same time, we were also interested in trying to shine a light on the work of education as its own theoretical field and thinking about how the work in education can inform business, medicine, sports, and other industries, which typically don't look to the education sector for research or for practice for that matter. So the responsible leadership theory in educational leadership came from this study of schools in the UK.

And what we found was that common across all of the schools that were performing beyond expectations was this centering of the community-- at the same time, the deep reliance on this web of contributors who were responsible for making the school succeed. And so that notion of the web was what was most interesting. We tend to think of schools as top-down structures. Responsible leadership allows you to look outward instead of downward.

The schools that we noticed that were doing particularly well, especially with kids who had recently arrived to their schools from other countries or who were living in poverty, was the way that the school leader intentionally developed relationships with parents and community organizations and, also, in some ways, even though they performed well on the expected metrics, didn't center those metrics.

So we're doing well on our tests. But, also, look how many kids come to school. Look how many kids were able to feed. Look at how many English classes we're able to offer. Look at how many resources we've been able to connect each other with. And so it was a centering of that collective good that really shined.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: Thank you for that. And I can see why you were drawn to it, being there's infinite opportunities. And I like that web description to understand different connection points. So, Zen, I know that you're excited to jump in here. We've got so much complexity. Right now, leaders are dealing with all kinds of challenges as well as exciting opportunities. So given your background and given the work that you spend your time and dedicate your time to doing, why is responsible leadership so important at the individual leader level?

ZEN THARANI: Thank you. And thanks for having me. I'm already learning so much. I'm so excited about this. Exactly what you're saying, Brian, is that the complexities in the world are calling upon us to be responsible leaders. I don't think-- I truly don't believe there's any other way through this. All the intricacies and all the conflict or all the synergies that we're seeing around the world, responsible leadership is, I believe, the right way through it.

So if you think about-- there's some things that really-- when I think about how we frame things, one of the things that really comes to me is, whenever we're trying to do the right thing, we always look at it from the economic point of view. For example, diversity, equity, inclusion, always looked at that this is good for your business. This is good for your bottom line. This is good for the economy. This is good for this or that. At what point do we say, this is the right thing to do? And that's why this is the good thing to do.

It requires courage to be able to strip all of that stuff out and just say, this is why this is important and it makes sense. We don't need to give it any other flavors to make it more adhesive to as a decision. And I also believe that it's not something that we can count on-- the structures that we've put in place about-- with silos. We can't outsource the responsibility of responsible leadership to somebody else. We can't just look at the government to do this for us. We can't look at a business to just do this for us.

There is a role that we all play in it. It is, what do we bring to this piece of the puzzle as a piece of the puzzle to this larger picture in moving the responsible leadership forward? And those are reflective things that we have to do as individuals in our leadership positions or whatever position we're in-- to say, how can we create this environment that's safe enough for responsible leadership decisions?

I think that's why it's so important-- because responsible leadership will bring us closer together, not pull us apart-- because at the heart of it, it's the right thing to do. That's what joins us. It's a beautiful Venn diagram of, what's the right thing to do, and let's go after that.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: Oh, my gosh. I could jump into so many of those great insights. I actually saw a question earlier here that I think is really spot-on to what you were just talking about, which is, really, we talk about, so what can I as a leader control? What can I influence? What do I need to be paying attention to and cognizant of and that accountable leadership sort of lens?

But then there's all these other systems, the different contributors, and the web that Corrie talked about. What about the organization where there is this push and pull around profit, whether it's shareholder profit or whether it's the need for sustainability and survival of an organization, with doing the right thing? What does senior level leaders and even board members need to be cognizant of to foster this environment of sustainable or of responsible leadership while also ensuring sustainability of an organization?

ZEN THARANI: I think it's very important to acknowledge that this is difficult. I don't think we can try to superhero our way through this. This is not the place or time to do that. It's to create this level of vulnerability in an organization or decision-makers-- whatever it may be-- to say, we have to do this, and we're going to fumble. And we need the grace to be able to correct and pivot and do what we need to do. I think that's going to be really important-- to say, we're not looking for perfection.

I believe we look at our leaders in a different light with this idea that what they are going to say or what they're going to enact on is going to be perfect. It's not. They're bound by the same human things that everybody else is. So the empathy level-- empathy lens is really important in this too. Just because somebody's in a leadership position doesn't make them equipped to be able to deal with the complexities that we're dealing with in this world. We haven't seen these complexities before.

This is why organizations like Ivey and the work that they do with coaching, that's really important because that keeps leaders at the forefront of the challenges that we're actually projecting. We know that these are difficult conversations and difficult decisions to be made. We know the challenges that our leaders are going to have to convince people who live in a very polarized world. That doesn't make the right thing wrong. That makes that-- it's in order to get people there, it takes a different level of effort.

And for that, you need the right soil. And that, I think, comes from the culture of the organization and the courage to say, we need to work on this together because it is something-- that this is a story that we're writing together. I don't know. Corrie, Kanina, what are your thoughts around this?

KANINA BLANCHARD: So I'm just going to draw on what you've said, Zen, and say it this way. You're never going to get a certificate or a badge. And nor should you be looking for one if you want to engage as a responsible leader. It is also not something that you will say, "I do," every time, every day. It is a question of stepping into situations and being strategic and recognizing there are times and spaces. And we have to prepare ourselves. We need to prepare our organizations.

Back to the culture aspect, I agree with you that it is very much about our individual choices in terms of how we show up. But it's also, what's most important to the organization? And so in some of my work, I absolutely tie that the work on character that we do here at Ivey is like the foundation of moving toward being a responsible leader-- because if you think about the 11 dimensions of character, I mean, it ends with judgment.

And what a leader needs to do when they are responsible is make a judgment in that moment. And they're making a judgment at a time where they're getting a lot of different pressure. And so that is where-- you mentioned empathy, collaboration, humanity, humility. It's where those dimensions come to bear. And, of course, there is courage that it takes. But not courage that's-- I loved how you said it. This isn't Superman courage.

This is humble courage. This is the courage to have the conversations, to do the difficult work. And as I've heard some people say when I've spoken to them-- this might sound simple. But it's huge to say, I can't answer that question right now. I need to think about it. And in a world where everything is time-driven and it's like quantity and speed supersede quality, we sometimes need to take the time and focus on, I need to make a quality decision and this is going to require a much more thoughtful reflective activity.

And to do that on your own is impossible. So I talk about the necessity to have a community and network at an individual level. But that also exists at the organizational level because it is that strength, maybe even-- I think a former Indigenous leader in the United States said, with one stick, we break; with a bundle, we stand strong. And I think that's some of the same metaphors that it's going to take to make the difficult kinds of decisions to make sustainable change in our organizations and as individuals.

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: I want to build on this a little bit. Related to this notion of the strength of the web, part of what makes that web work is a shared vision for what everybody wants the organization to do. I think we'd all argue that responsible leadership wants the organization to do more than the minimum expectations, perform whatever the metric is within your particular field.

So creating collectively that vision with people inside and outside-- both the people who work in the organization and those whom the organization aims to serve-- to work towards this, what is it we're doing? How are we going to do it? Building that vision both relies on and builds trust. The strength of those lines in the web is trust. What makes responsible leadership work is that when the leader, the responsible leader, or somebody within the organization makes a mistake, there's enough trust that everybody will say, I know that person was trying to do the right thing.

A responsible organization cultivates a strong sense of risk-taking. It's OK if I try something new-- because I'm trying it because we all agree that this is what we need to do now for the good of our community. I might not get it right, but you're willing to go along with me for this risk.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

 

Another point that's come up is this notion of, what happens in crisis? And I think that it's important to differentiate typical times from crisis times. My most recent work on responsible leadership in education shows that those organizations that had a strong sense of collective responsible leadership were those that did better in crisis because of exactly what I just said.

Everybody was able to say, OK, we need to do this now. We know you're trying to do your best, and we're going to go with that. We got to get computers to the kids. We got to get food to the families. We got to figure out how to get people in here safely. We have to deal with the vaccination questions. And so crisis leadership is often better when there is a strong sense of responsible leadership already embedded. But, of course, that's an ideal scenario.

As any organization or school could tell you, many of the people affected by COVID were brand-new in their role. They didn't have time to develop this responsible leadership. So again, if you think about the web, how strong is the organization without the central leader also? So I think trying to understand this notion of trust and responsibility and vision and then also thinking about ideal leadership in times when you can plan and build out the kind of leadership you want and then what happens in a crisis is really important to consider.

KANINA BLANCHARD: So I just want to jump in for a second because you're getting me very excited here-- because I think the other-- you're going to have to control us here, Bryan. But I think that one of the things that that really leads to is this idea of failure. And there isn't an organization that doesn't on some wall placard say that we embrace failure. But we know that there's very few organizations whose culture also focuses on creating an environment where it's not that failure itself should be celebrated but failure needs to be understood.

And one of the things that myself and some of my colleagues use in some of our classes is Amy Edmondson's work-- dates back to 2011. But she initiated this idea that one of the things we need to do and help people do. And as a responsible leader, it's not saying something generally like, oh, we should learn from failure.

What it is about is understanding that failure itself can be considered as a spectrum and that when we understand when things go wrong and we take the time and be responsible to say, I come from the chemical industry-- root cause analysis when something goes wrong is really about human health and safety.

Similarly, when you go back and you understand, that failure could be actually very praiseworthy failure. That's hypothesis testing. That is marketing. That is trying new things out, as you say. On the other side, you have blameworthy failure. And that's-- if you deviantly want to do harm, that is a very different failure. And that part of responsibility is creating a space where we can better understand failure and then most importantly respond because not only can there be praiseworthy failure, there can be praiseworthy response.

So even if something is done with mal intent or inattention or too much complexity, the response an organization takes internally, externally with employees, with leaders, that can embody-- I love what you said there, Corrie, about-- the trust, the web because that's where commitment can come from.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: So thank you all for giving really interesting perspectives. There's so much I can pull out here. The reality is perfection is not going to be the outcome each and every time. So that idea of making an effort learning-- I see that in the comments-- is, as long as we're learning along the way-- and Kanina, your comment around this-- it's not a mistake.

There's a huge continuum of what this looks like. But that mindset of growth, that idea of slowing down-- and sometimes, you need to move slow to actually move quicker in the long run and taking that pause where it makes where it makes sense. I want to shift us a little bit here and maybe dig in a little bit more.

So think about the perspective of, I'm an individual leader. This is something that I'm very passionate about. I've hopefully aligned myself with an organization that's equally passionate about this. Where do I start to build a framework? And do I just get a framework? And then I have this framework, and I just-- I go, and I go, and I go. Or is a framework a little bit looser and maybe in pencil, and I continue to refine and learn as I go?

But help me get started and then give me some tips for, how do I improve and continue to grow as a leader? I'm going to let you arm-wrestle for who wants to go first-- anyone passionate about diving in. But I bet you each have some important views on this.

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: I think one way to start is to shift the language around leadership and to recognize that it's not the role of one person to make these important changes in decisions. And so a leader who says, what can I do, is already one step behind the game. So thinking about, what can we do, and who do I have? Who has the resources, talents, connections, spiritual elements that can help us do what we need to do?

And I think that also comes with training. So all of us are involved to some degree in leadership training as well. And so thinking about-- when we train leaders, that guiding framework should always be, how can we do this, and who can we rely on to make the changes that we need in order to see the results that we want? So that's where I would say to start is, is broadening the concept of leadership beyond an individual to think back to that notion of collective.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: I like the collective. I like the "we." It feels a lot less intimidating when I'm not in it alone. And I think there's a more generative mindset-- a great way to start.

ZEN THARANI: That got me thinking about a couple of things. One was, responsible leadership, in my mind and what I feel from my experience, is easier when the issue affects you also as a leader. I'll talk about it from my personal experience. Inclusion became a really big thing for me because my son is deaf. And he wears cochlear implants, and he can operate in both in the signing world as well as auditory world. But that is on top of my mind all the time now in everything that I do.

How do we make this inclusive? It doesn't have to be from the hearing perspective or anything like that. But just the fact that there's that-- the other one is as a caregiver to kids. That also is an experience that will enable you to make more responsible leadership decisions. The challenge is that, how do you ensure that the leaders who are in those also have a way of experiencing this-- that they're deciding something?

That brings the web to be really tight. Or, there's enough trust to say that we've got the right people to make this decision. And there's a humility to say, we're actually not the right people to make this decision. That is really important. And that's missing at lots of tables, and that's OK. That being said, I think that's where we can add value.

Creating an environment that exemplifies responsible leadership is like talking about-- trying to explain to somebody how sugar tastes. You just can't do it. How are you going to explain what the sensation would be when you're taking something sweet? A couple of weeks ago, I was at a place. And whenever you come to Victoria, I encourage you to come to this place. It's called the Butterfly Gardens.

It was a miserable weather outside-- raining and gray and just gross. And we were there for my son's friend's birthday party. We walked in, and we were transformed. We had flamingos, turtles, butterflies, tropical plants, poison dart frogs. And I look up, and I see-- but it's so weird outside. How is this possible in here? And I tried to connect that to this particular thing, is that it is possible to create pockets of this within organizations where the culture doesn't jive.

And that comes from a collective effort. It's not one person who runs this whole butterfly garden. It's not that one person who's like, I'm going to control everything about it and create this environment. It's an experiential part that everybody plays. The more they experience it, the more they want to preserve it, the more they want to work hard at keeping it and making it better. And I think that's really important.

So as a leader, it is absolutely a "we" thing and also an "I" thing to say, how can I give this experience to the people I'm working with for them to see what responsible leadership looked like? It comes down to, how do we exemplify that in our actions as well as the environment that we've created? And that, I think, takes courage and hard work. It is hard work.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: What a great connection.

KANINA BLANCHARD: I'd love to build on that if I can jump in-- because you actually set up maybe some of the key points that I'd like to share about a course that focuses on developing young leaders. And the first part-- and I mentioned this earlier-- is we start by understanding the dimensions of character. And those are universally understood and that they form the foundation.

The next part is around that reflective eye and unpacking and understanding what your own relationship with responsibility is. And what's interesting is that when you sit down with a group of participants or sit down by yourself and think about, when did this idea of being responsible come to me? And one of the things that I find is that-- again, in a course that's an elective, these are people who self-select, and these are people of all different ages and all different places.

But there's usually a reason why responsibility matters. And then to your point, you automatically made this visceral connection to your son. And a lot of people that I speak to will share stories often from childhood or things that have happened in their development. It could be from their parents or something that happened that put them into-- or they chose to step into this sense of being responsible maybe even earlier than you would expect someone to be-- or experiences that were actually not planned out.

The next thing, I think, we've already talked about is that if you're going to go down this path, it is recognizing you can't do it by yourself and it's not about a superhero. It's about talking to people about the concept and what is important to them. And then it goes to this idea that to be responsible is actually a strategic endeavor. We develop business plans and strategy plans for many, many things. I had a client once who used to say, I've got to stop dying on every hill. You cannot take on every battle in the workplace.

And there is a part of strategy that is around climbing. When is it that you step in? With whom do you step and engage? When do you raise? When do you try to make change? And so there is a certain amount of strategic growth that also doesn't come in the moment you decide you want to be a responsible leader. It is something that you develop and you learn. And to the point of continuous learning, is part of this journey-- and the journey is not just a cognitive one. It is very much an emotional one.

And so in the programs, we talk about the importance of sense-making and meaning-making. And it is in the sharing of each other's stories and how the story of struggling with making responsible decisions. So sometimes, the consequences can be to your job. It can be to your income. These are real consequences. And how that makes you feel-- how do you deal with those emotional realities that come up when we step into spaces that are unsafe?

Human beings are not wired to actually want to walk into a lion's den, which, sometimes, it feels like when you're the one in the room saying, I think we need to take a different approach because this is going to harm x. So it's courage. But it's also that dimension of learning from others, being prepared, and being willing to feel those emotions so that when you step into that and you feel the emotion that you're in a better position to manage that and ride through what can be a difficult storm--

But it is the long game. Responsible leadership is the long game. There may be some short-term wins, but it is very much about a long game.

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BRYAN BENJAMIN: It's a great frame. And it actually jumps us to another question. And I'm going to get Corrie's voice into the conversation on this really sort of-- you commented earlier around resilient systems and the analogy with the web. Something that I learn so much every time I moderate one of these live streams is this notion of, responsible leadership is, I'm not doing it today; I'm going to start doing it tomorrow.

I got to imagine, many leaders, most leaders are practicing it without even necessarily knowing it-- and not being maybe as deliberate as they could be but-- giving themselves credit for what they are doing. So my question is really around, how do we encourage more leaders to engage in responsible leadership? I actually want to reframe it a little bit. How do we help leaders understand what maybe they're already doing that is contributing to them being responsible leaders? And then pushing to-- how do we encourage more responsible leadership in the collective?

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: That's a really great question. And I think part of it is a reframing of the incentive structures that drive what we consider success to be. And so that's not something that individual leaders can take on but rather a societal shift towards valuing collective good. And, of course, that is very high in the sky.

But responsible leadership, as we're defining it here, in many ways, is going against the grain. And the more that we can make incentive structures privilege collective good, the more people will seek to do it and the more that institutions that train leaders will be incentivized to frame their preparation experiences around that policy too.

Educational policy right now-- every school is not measured on how happy their children are or how well-fed they are but how well they do on whatever their country's formal examination is. So it comes from policy decisions too. Now, of course, that's very idealistic. But it makes it much more complicated for individuals to think about how to take on this mantle of responsible leadership when they are in no way incentivized and at times are penalized for doing so.

So that notion of courage is necessary at the moment. But in an ideal future world, it's not courageous leadership to be responsible. It's just leadership. And so that would be an ultimate goal. I think the other thing to consider here, again, is, how do we build the leadership-- the relationships rather that support responsible leadership?

And that means developing these ties of trust within and with outside the organization. So right now, schools, for example, aren't always trusted by the communities they serve. Businesses aren't necessarily trusted by the customers they serve. Governments aren't necessarily trusted by the people they serve. And so some sense of repair or restoration, I think, is critical also.

Now where that comes from? At the moment, I think it has to come from the top. Ultimately, over time, as we move more towards this web of leadership, I think that it could look different. But if we're talking, where do we start right now, March 7th, 2024? It's working with the top down to change incentive structures and relationships in order to foster responsible leadership.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: A great comment around the ecosystem and organization it operates in. How do we incentivize? How do we reward? How do we encourage the right behaviors and aspire to, it won't always have to be sort of top-down? It can prove from the side and the bottom. But we've got to start somewhere. And that sounds like a really logical place to start.

How do I influence? I'm not sure it's the right word. But how do I go up in the organization from a seat where maybe I'm not in a senior leader role, which would be the case for the majority of people out there? How do I influence and encourage change from above when I'm not there?

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: I want to add to that question and to encourage folks to think about the difference maybe between private and public sector organizations. For example, corporations can hire and fire based on the vision that they have. You get somebody. You have your mission statement. A new leader comes in. You have a bit more flexibility with who you can have on your team. Schools and other social serving organizations don't necessarily have that because of other incentive structures such as tenure.

So sometimes, thinking about responsible leadership-- to go to that old saw-- is getting the right people on the bus. But sometimes, the right people aren't on the bus. And so how do you get those people on the bus to move in this direction? So I think it's a dual-pronged question.

ZEN THARANI: Totally. And thank you for that, Corrie. Thank you because exactly what I was going to get to is that-- I can give you a lens from the public sector side because I've experienced it myself and I work with clients in that, especially in the health care sector. And it's not-- this question is no different when we're talking about topic of innovation too. It's really interesting.

So we're talking about something existing in an environment that has politics and bureaucracy embedded in it in the private sector. So in that, how do you innovate? Same question-- how do you do responsible leadership and responsible decision-making in an environment where leaders are doing both managing up, managing sideways and down, and are stretched in every sort of way, and are driven by mandates that are given to them through the political system? It's like, how do you make the right decision?

I go back. And this might be simplifying it a lot. And one of the things that is a unifying thing in the health sector that everybody stands behind and will continue to for decades on is patient centricity. And what does patient centricity mean? Patient centricity means that we exist because the patient exists in the health care sector-- patient at the center of everything we do.

So one leader, a long time ago, told me and said, the way they make decisions is they always say, what's the right thing to do for that patient? And that becomes a unifying discussion, a unifying objective that quietens down everything else.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: It's hard to argue with that.

ZEN THARANI: Right. It's very hard to argue with that. If I'm sitting in a room and I say, fine. What's the right thing for this patient? It gets us in a very different mindset to talk about this. And I think, rather than trying to convince people on the things that we disagree on, let's move the needle on the things that we agree on and create that momentum of responsible leadership. We knew-- and again, we bring up-- COVID comes up everywhere. Pandemic comes up everywhere. It was a unifying force. It affected every person.

Everybody's like, OK, this is the right thing to do. It was very hard-- very easy to make decisions. So can we then manage up to that perspective to say, this is the right thing to do because it's the right thing to do for the patient. Really take the nebulous away from it and be really specific around this and make that one decision and create that momentum. That's how I've seen it play out-- not in every situation, but it does help.

KANINA BLANCHARD: If I can add two very practical things to answer your question-- one is that we're seeing here within our own institution that we've had a history of nice words on a wall but the question of whether or not anyone knows those words. And if they do, it's memorized. It's not felt.

And so the work that we're doing here at Erin Huner's work around value studios where people are brought together from different parts of the organization. And the question is, if this is a value, how does it look in practice? How does it sound in practice? How does it feel in practice? And that's just on the top of my mind because I'm going to one of the sessions shortly after this.

But I think activities like that, which bring employees in an organization around to actually get into the meat, not of micromanaging and editing the words, but actually saying, this is what it would look like to be responsible, to act with responsibility-- and that starts to identify and even unpeel the behaviors that actually work against that in the organization.

The other very specific thing that I'd like to share comes from one of my former students who actually is an incredible young man. And he actually speaks about responsible leadership in his own work. And he works for an airline industry-- an industry with lots of moving parts, lots of challenges, and lots of really big consequences in terms of the decision-making.

But he talks about, who can be responsible? And this individual is 27 years old. And this idea that you have to wait till you're responsible-- for example, Corrie, until you have tenure or until you are at the senior level, until you have a certain title-- he as a 27-year-old breaks that out.

And he shares with-- he's got a knapsack, and it is his little toolkit. And along the way, he puts in there things that he's seen people do that for him, he thought, wow, that is how I want to be able to make decisions. That's responsible. That is what courage looks like to try to push against what the conventional norms are.

And so he comes to our school, and he talks about his knapsack. So one thing we can all do, whether we're 18 or we're whatever, every day, we can pick up and we can acknowledge that we've seen behaviors and actions-- because, of course, these are observable and we can put them in our maps.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: That's great. I got to pick up on that word "observable." It connects to the comment around values and words on wall, actually. What does it look like in practice? Within my specific organization-- because I might have the same word on my wall that someone else does. But it actually means something different in the context in which I operate, whether it's health care or education or private sector or-- you name it. But the time to be deliberate and to engage in those conversations and how meaningful and important and even empowering that could be.

Zen, back to your comment around patient at the center, I'd like to think that anyone in any conversation regardless of level could call that out and saying, we lost sight of the patient. Or what should we do in the context of the patient? And other organizations outside of health care, maybe we need to find what their version of the patient is, whether it's the client or the customer or another part of their broader community. If you had to boil it down to one really critical takeaway that you'd like to leave with everybody who's engaged with us here.

ZEN THARANI: So web, just that visual of a shared vision, shared values, and trust, that really got to me. Strategic leadership, responsible leadership-- responsible leadership is not something you can do all the time. It's something that you strategically employ in places where you can. That was another one. It's not a cognitive journey. I love that. [LAUGHS] It's like it's a lot of feeling around it. So I just want to say thank you for Corrie and Kanina to educating me and just enriching my knowledge.

CORRIE STONE-JOHNSON: Responsible leadership is a process of becoming. It doesn't have an end. One doesn't just walk away and say, OK, well, now I'm responsible. It's an ongoing process of improvement and reflection.

KANINA BLANCHARD: I would say, remember that responsible leadership is observable. And it's observable in your ABCDs, your actions, your behaviors, your choices, and your decisions. And when you are finding yourself in a situation that you feel tension-- and what is most important-- because it may be someone you know, something like money, or it could be the environment. It could be something that's existential that is so hard for us as human beings to wrap our head around.

But it goes back to the old story of the recycling bin. That is when your responsibility shows, is when you do something, having thought about it, and chosen something other than what was easy.

BRYAN BENJAMIN: Kanina, Corrie, Zen, thank you for being yourselves, bringing such great insights, being open, being authentic, challenging us. I think you've provided our audience-- and I'm speaking for myself on some of this as well-- with incredible value, and you've left us with some great tangible ideas. And I think there's a call to action and a real challenge that we all have.

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SEAN ACKLIN GRANT: Thank you for tuning in to Leadership in Practice. We'd like to thank our guests, Corrie Stone-Johnson, Zen Tharani, and Kanina Blanchard. Leadership in Practice is produced by Joanna Shepherd, Rachel Jackson, and me, Sean Acklin Grant. Editing and audio mix by Carol Eugene Park. If you like this episode, make sure to subscribe. You can also find more information by visiting iveyacademy.com. Or, follow us on social media, @IveyAcademy, for more content, upcoming events, and programs. We hope you'll join us again soon.

 

 

Associated Faculty

Kanina Blanchard

Kanina Blanchard

Assistant Professor, Management Communications & General Management

About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School

The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

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