When considering the report card for the modern business leader, the metrics for success differ by corporation and industry. And yet, for a vast majority, a prevailing consensus persists: economic interests reign supreme in the pursuit of success. Even in governments and not-for-profits, economic metrics drive decision-making. Yet, as leaders grapple with contemporary challenges, such as social inequities, climate change, and sustainability, a crucial question emerges: Does an unwavering focus on economic gains remain justified, or is it time for a new era of leadership – one defined by responsibility and a broader social perspective?

A panel of experts explored this question at a recent Ivey Academy livestream: Responsible Leadership in the Future of Business.

The discussion, moderated by The Ivey Academy’s Bryan Benjamin, highlights the importance and implications of practising responsible leadership, while providing guidelines for how leaders can implement this form of leadership – even in crisis situations. Panellists included Kanina Blanchard, Assistant Professor of Management Communications and General Management at Ivey Business School; Zen Tharani, Ivey Executive Coach; and Corrie Stone-Johnson, Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy at University at Buffalo.

From the singular to the collective

Despite emerging around the turn of the century, responsible leadership remains largely enigmatic. To lend clarity, Blanchard launched the dynamic discussion by defining the concept as a framework, which prioritizes the wellbeing of society and the environment by strategically planning for outcomes that advance the collective. While intrinsically beneficial, it can often conflict with the economic interests of the individual or the organization.

“…it’s about recognizing that we have a responsibility to consider all stakeholders, which – in doing so – may mean that we must be prepared to make decisions that may not in the short term, or even the long term, necessarily be good for the bottom line,” said Blanchard.

But, in a world that has long revolved around the bottom line, how can we shift to a model of responsible leadership? While acknowledging the road to implementation is challenging, the panel shared valuable insights on how leaders, organizations, and individuals can embrace this innovative model, charting a course toward a foreign, but distinctly brighter future.

It takes courage

In his acclaimed poem 'The Road Not Taken,' Robert Frost underscores the transformative power of choosing the less-travelled path, a sentiment mirroring the essence of responsible leadership. The panel unanimously agreed that while responsible leadership is imperative for advancing our present conditions, it has its challenges. Such leadership demands the courage to make decisions with far-reaching impact, potentially diverging from financial interests and inviting scrutiny. These choices necessitate boldness – to pioneer uncharted territories, innovate, and accept the risk of failure.

“The complexities in the world are calling on us to become responsible leaders. All the intricacies, all the conflict, and the synergies that we are seeing around the world, responsible leadership – I believe – is the right way through it… but it requires courage,” said Tharani.

Spinning a web, together

Studying high-performing schools in the U.K., Stone-Johnson found that the most successful ones followed a web-like model.

“It’s not top-down – it’s outward,” she said.

Whether in academia or business, Stone-Johnson told how the integrity of the web held a deep reliance on keeping community – and its contributors – at the centre.  

How can leaders empower individual contributors? Stone-Johnson advocates for a shift in leadership language, moving from an individual to a collective mindset. Instead of a leader asking, "What can I do?," she urges leaders to recognize that change isn't the sole responsibility of one person. Rather, it's about identifying the right individuals, resources, and skills required to collectively bring about change.

More than words on a wall

Applying the web analogy, the panel emphasized that a crucial aspect of building and sustaining a web is establishing a shared vision or mission. They stressed that a generic mission statement (or “nice words on a wall,” as Blanchard called it) isn't sufficient; organizations must create a collective vision involving both internal and external stakeholders to foster trust and community, thereby fortifying the web.

Drawing from his experience in the health-care sector, Tharani said establishing a collective objective not only fosters unity, but also shifts individuals into a different, more open, mindset. He shared an example of a leader who, when making decisions, prioritized the question, "What's the right thing to do for that patient?" Tharani said keeping this central question at the forefront helped to streamline collective decision-making, mitigate guesswork, and provide clarity in crisis situations.

“Rather than trying to convince people on the things we disagree on, let’s move the needle on the things we agree on. Let’s create the momentum of responsible leadership,” he said. 

Reevaluating the incentive structure

What hinders today's leaders from embracing responsible decisions? Stone-Johnson argues that existing incentive structures don't favour responsible leadership. Implementing responsible leadership demands a complete overhaul of traditional incentives.

“The more we can make incentive structure about the collective good, the more people will seek to do it,” Stone-Johnson said.

Although acknowledging that a societal shift appears ambitious, Stone-Johnson says it’s certainly feasible, with the key starting point targeting leadership at the highest level. While recognizing that everyone shares accountability for responsible leadership, she emphasizes the crucial role of senior leadership in modelling and initiating the necessary steps for complete organizational participation.

It doesn’t end

While the panellists emphasized the importance of leaders advancing in adapting and implementing a responsible leadership model, they said it’s important to remember that it's an ongoing journey, not a destination. Responsible leadership is not a finite achievement; it involves continuous evolution, improvement, and reflective practices.

In closing, Blanchard mentioned the example of Thomas Verkooijen, MSc ’19. Despite now assuming advanced leadership roles worldwide, he consistently contributes as a guest lecturer in the School's Leading Responsibly course. One of his key insights to students is to get into the habit of being mindful, identifying examples of responsible decision-making, and storing examples in a metaphorical backpack. By storing and reflecting on such instances, individuals can draw on those experiences and actively take the moment to think, not just make the quickest, most “normative decision.” Avoiding the pressure to make the easiest and fastest choice requires deliberation, consultation, and a systems thinking approach. 

“Whether we’re 18 or at the height of our career, every day we can take the time to think about the consequences of our ‘abcds’— our actions, behaviours, choices, and decisions on those with little to no influence,” she said. “Since our abcds are observable to others, we can add to both our backpack, but also to others wanting to make more sustainable change.”

  • Tags
  • Critical issues
  • Evolution of work
  • Sustainability
  • Kanina Blanchard
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