Professors Haridimos Tsoukas, Warwick Business School, Adrian Zicari, ESSEC Business School, and Tanusree Jain, Copenhagen Business School, join forces to propose a new way forward for corporations to respond positively to the current context of crisis, risk, and, for many, loss of bearing.
The Three Pillars of Responsible Leadership by Haridimos Tsoukas, Adrian Zicari, and Tanusree Jain, with the participation of Tom Gamble.
Crises are not new to the Human Race. Through the turn of centuries and now well into the 21st, crisis may even be viewed as a normal state in a world characterized by competing economic and governance schools of thought, complex systems, rising standards of living amidst diversity of cultures and behaviours – not to mention our now full grown awareness of the impact of this expanding human activity on our planet and beyond.
Despite our continuing attempts since the beginnings of society to understand the complexity of the interconnected world around us – indeed creating some degree of restraint – and to maintain an element of control, it can well be deduced that crises are somewhat unavoidable given the fallibility of humankind. Each successive generation has seen its share of them but the current arguably faces one that could well spell the end of human civilization as we know it.
A crucial role for companies and institutions
The large-scale upheavals of recent times have left people without a compass bearing which has created extremity of thought and of leadership, exacerbated fears and concerns over a ‘new unknown’, and challenged the very way in which business and society has been functioning for the last several decades. Here, we may think of the persistent economic and social misgivings of the Great Depression and the Global Financial Crisis, the surge of virtual currencies, the large-scale burden on energy consumption, and digital disruption that redefines many long-standing industrial relations. Add to this the now, indisputable evidence of humankind’s negative impact on the environment and the urgent need to now work with nature and not against it.
Despite society’s growing distrust in governments and leaders, we believe that both our institutions and corporations are in a unique position to effectively and efficiently address the wicked problems of our times and those of the future. They have the resources necessary to create stability for billions of people and for our environment, and they have the capability to create purposeful living that integrates respect for both human and species diversity, while catalysing innovations for the common good through development of clean energies, virtuous supply chains and the circular economy.
In order to achieve this, we identify three essential pillars of impact: Ethical Leadership, Responsible Governance, and authenticity through Social and Environmental Accounting.
New leadership for new challenges
Ethical leadership is a first pillar. It involves the ability to influence others to take a moral stance on issues affecting or related to the organization. Insofar as an organization is a “moral system”, its members are driven by a common purpose, ideals and values, which leaders embody in their behavior. Even the most operational activities are underlain by a certain ethos, which leaders exemplify – keeping promises, caring for others, respecting differences, promoting fairness and equality; fostering trust.
Ethical leaders feel an intense sense of responsibility to all stakeholders of the organization and to the broader system (ecological and institutional) that sustains their viability. Responsibility requires courage to discharge it – to speak up against inequality; to take a moral stand on matters of value to the community; to take initiatives that advance the common good (both at the organizational and societal level); to lead the way to establish new norms or refine current ones in the face of new challenges.
Ethical leadership involves humility – one will never know everything; mistakes will be made; everyone has something to contribute to the conversation; we are all vulnerable beings, parts of a broader cosmic order. Responsible leaders know there is life outside their organizations and have created a life story in which they seem themselves as contributors to a better world for the future generations.
Governance that is inclusive
And importantly it emphasizes the decision-maker, and the need for responsible governance – a collective of diverse voices and viewpoints working through multi-stakeholder expectations, driven towards a purposeful long term vision. On too many occasions, it is by surrounding oneself with silent voices or similar voices that corporate misconduct occurs. The new model of governance has to be agile, gender diverse, collaborative, deliberative and discursive bound by values and inspired by its potentially positive impact on business, society and the planet.
Meaning for people, companies and planet
The third pillar for this positive future is the necessity for social and environmental accounting. Because measuring is frequently the first step towards managing. As Kaplan and Norton famously said in their researchbased article on the balanced scorecard, “What you measure is what you get”. Organisations can claim their commitment to social and environmental impact, but there is scant progress unless those impacts are measured, tracked, and eventually communicated to the public.
In that sense, the increasingly frequent practice of publishing CSR / Sustainability reports is a step in the good direction. This kind of report backs up the organisation’s financial report – on the one hand providing a message of the necessary business performance of a firm, and on the other demonstrating that the firm contributes to society and the planet either directly or indirectly.
And this does not simply have to be the privilege of large organisations – for research and practice have shown that tools such as the Value Added Statement (VAS) allow even sole traders to identify where they have had positive impact on employees, the good of the state, local communities, and the environment. Haller and van Staden (2014) explain that the VAS can become a “practical and effective reporting instrument”, thus complementing other reporting standards. For instance, a mining firm in Mexico – one of the largest silver mines in the world – has been using VAS for more than a decade.
By doing this, the company discloses how different stakeholders (particularly employees) maintained their share in value distributed over time. Comparable experiences exist in South Africa, Brazil and the UK, among other countries. The takeaway is that even small companies – whose aggregated impact in terms of employment, production and revenue can be significant – can, indeed should use this kind of reporting, as it is relatively simple to prepare and remains meaningful for stakeholders and managers alike.
The way forward
Crisis is nothing new, though it can be addressed anew. Rather than return to old models of tackling crisis with cutbacks and austerity, tighter control over freedom of speech and attempts to muzzle difference be it voice or diversity, we call for leadership that offers positive vision and a world towards which people want to go and which is not imposed. Where innovation does not simply mean taking from the planet’s limited resources, or cynically exploiting human resources. And where leadership centres as much on generosity and respect towards others and the wider system as the generating of profit and wealth for the interested few.
- Link up with Profs. Adrian Zicari and Tanusree Jain on LinkedIn
- Follow the authors on Twitter: @htsoukas, @ZicariAdrian, @TanusreeJain
- Read a related article: The Task of Our Generation: Business leaders and climate change
- Discover and study at CoBS member schools ESSEC Business School and Warwick Business School.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.