“Responsible Leadership” Has to Be More Than A Motto

“Responsible leadership is not a stand-alone issue — it is interconnected to the chain of political, social, and economic change”


Professor Kiran Trehan writes for the Birmingham Business School Blog:


The motto of “responsible leadership” seems to be omnipresent in the worlds of business, local communities, and public life.

Responsible leadership has achieved shibboleth status as a social good and a source of richness, a resource to be welcomed. The message is that this enhances performance and makes the workplace more socially inclusive.

There is a positive here: the continuous search for new and more diverse responsible leaders is driven by the need to cultivate contemporary skills that can respond to changing social, political and economic demographics. Businesses are being challenged to ensure that they are representative of the communities in which they serve.

But is this the core of “responsible leadership”? Or are these just two words to cover up the continuity of irresponsible leaders?

Irresponsible or Responsible Leadership

Where have all the responsible leaders gone? The desire for it has never been in such high demand, as Brexit, the financial crisis, the shifting political landscape, and disclosures in business, public services, and cultural institutions highlighting the consequences and impact of the irresponsible. The UN has highlighted the importance of responsible leadership for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and its crucial place in development of a fair and equal society.

So where did it go wrong in the first place? Are we still turning a blind eye to irresponsible leadership, with the “responsible” a palliative to challenge dominant discourses? Can responsible leadership really translate into new practice?

Our research is shining a light on the importance of understanding the context of irresponsible leadership. It cannot be dismissed or overly simplified as being about a few bad apples, or or as a simple connection to a misuse of power, authority, or stature. Irresponsible leadership takes place because we are in denial that the world needs future leaders who are diverse and who think, feel and act differently in business, political and social life. Responsible leadership is not sustainable without a consideration of the emotional, relational and political dynamics that underpin leadership; it’s not a neutral activity that occurs in isolation from the socio-economic circumstance within which it exists.

So is responsible leadership the fairest of them all? Now that’s an interesting dilemma. What responsible leadership asks us to think about is how we address challenges such as globalization, disruptive technology, political uncertainty, and the environment. How do we develop a more inclusive society which is not about short-term profiteering — economically and socially — but about eradicating inequality and leveraging leadership to tackle the big issues relating to poverty, discrimination, economic growth, sustainable business ,and communities?

Responsible leadership is as much about the three P’s – passion, persuasion, and persistence – as it is about inclusivity and moral and ethical judgements.

During Responsible Business Week we have a responsibility to ask the unaskable questions, which are not simply related to the financial and political crisis or the plethora of voices challenging capitalism. Responsible leadership needs to put the intellectual evidence to work if we are to take action and make a difference in the communities we work and live in. This requires cultural diversity, entrepreneurial mind-sets, innovation, and imagination.

As Abraham Lincoln said, you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. If responsible leadership is going to deliver on its promises, we need to learn from our past and re-imagine the future by ensuring responsible leadership is not a stand-alone issue — it is interconnected to the chain of political, social, and economic change.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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