Part 1 of 3 introducing research that shifts the focus from the individual leader, to leader relations
Anne Keränen is a management and international business researcher at the Martti Ahtisaari Institute, Oulu Business School, in Finland.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series where business researcher Anne Keränen shares her doctoral thesis with the GRLI network , which radically shifted the focus from individual leaders to leader relations. It brings to the forefront the importance of understanding leadership as a shared phenomenon, and as a medium for responsibility integration in business. Within the framework of changing business practice, this perspective can lead to new business change theories, ideas and practices. In this three-part series, Anne explains her proposed approach to leadership as a social construction process, expanding focus from the qualities and competencies of individual leaders to a wider perspective — and why the narrative environment of leadership is important.
Conventional vs. responsible leadership theories
In considering leadership, theories of responsible leadership are distinct from conventional views. They are distinguished from conventional leadership by two key factors, namely stakeholders and leadership targets.
The responsible leadership theory differs from conventional leadership theories in that responsible leadership emphasises the meaning of stakeholders, and the different stakeholders that leaders need to be aware of and consider when making decisions. Traditional leadership theories are more focused on the leader and his or her subordinates, and this one-dimensional interaction between leader and subordinate, and the communication and relationship that result from this interaction.
On the opposite end, the responsible leadership theory has a wider perspective than this. It advocates that because of the change in business context, leaders need to be considering the needs and viewpoints of different stakeholders, such as employees, customers, sector organisations and the environment.
Under the realm of responsible leadership, the leader adapts to a changing context. There is no longer an internal focus on the leader, but a wider external focus, not only recognising but also strongly emphasising all of the different stakeholders who may be involved in different ways and contexts.
The aim or target of earlier leadership theories was a result of the traditional leadership perspective, guided by the single leader-centric process of traditional leadership. However, the responsible leadership theory considers the target differently. It builds from the premise that sustainable development — a common societal good — is the target of responsible leadership.
These two aspects, namely stakeholders and the common societal and company-good target that it is heading towards, are central to the responsible leadership theory.
Integrating responsible leadership
The conventional application of leadership and leadership theories is still widely expected; so is the manifestation of this — such as a single heroic leader within a company. But integrating responsible leadership within a company will necessitate a much wider perspective. The change in these leadership theories will bring about the migrating from a ‘single-strong-man’ viewpoint to a ‘strong-group’ viewpoint.
However, this migration of leadership theories develops challenges for leaders. Conventionally, people are waiting for the strong leader to emerge, but integrating responsible leadership means that the responsible leader will need to act differently. The responsible leader may find him or herself constantly defending this novel approach within a long-established and accepted traditional context.
The traditional perspective challenges the integration of responsible leadership on the ground in many ways. For example, it highlights the short-term financial results and tough business leadership while responsibility may be achieved through more long-term orientated goals and team leadership. These challenges are limitations for companies, and have to be overcome for successful responsible leadership integration.
Shaping the responsible leader
There are many different aspects to what constitutes a responsible leader, and this is evident from identifying responsible leaders across disciplines and sectors. At the same time, there is no single approach to becoming a responsible leader. Building on the founding principles of responsible leadership, becoming a responsible leader advocates a high degree of personal influence and flexibility.
Personal influence is another factor. Anne says that one of the responsible leaders interviewed as part of her research simply awoke one day knowing that there was no turning back to the old ways. “The world has changed, and as a leader in business, I had to change too.” For some, it may be a pertinent happening that spurs responsible leadership; for others, it may be a process of maturing in understanding in action or it may be a societal context which induces a changed perspective. How we reach responsible leadership is not important. What is important is how it becomes ingrained in leaders, part of their being.
Responsible leaders are both mature yet they remain youthful in their readiness to experience new things. Anne found this sense of readiness as a commonality among all the leaders interviewed as part of her research. Neither is responsible leadership tied to age. A young leader can be a responsible leader, but so can an older leader.
This research took place within the Scandinavian context, and does not necessarily speak for the international environment. Responsible leaders from different sectors were interviewed across different companies and departments, from managing directors to directors of corporate social responsibility departments. The research included both men and women. The research group furthermore included different company types, including smaller, family-owned and operated companies, international companies as well as public and privately-owned companies. What it confirmed is that the responsible leader can come from almost any background.
Shifting focus from the individual leader to leader relations
It is important to shift the focus from the individual leader to leader relations, because the context of business, and therefore the context of leadership, has changed. Given the complexity of contemporary companies, it is nearly impossible for a single leader to be in complete control of a company as a whole. For this context, responsible leaders with strong stakeholder relations are needed.
It is increasingly recognised that work within companies is knowledge-based. Thinking about responsibility, there are many people within companies that are required to make decisions on a daily basis. And these are often complex decisions — involving ethics and sustainability. But chances are that if the leader includes several people within this decision-making process, there is greater surety that different points of view have been taken into account in reaching the decision.
How this shift responds to the challenges of formal change initiatives
The responsible leadership theory clearly responds to the challenges of formal change initiatives. Change programmes are known for failures, specifically because the top-down approach is commonly adopted for bridging change. Anne reminds that it is easy to get trapped in the technical front, forgetting about the people and whole personalities involved not only in the decision-making process, but also at the decision-making process end-point. Actively involving people should be at the centre of change programmes, helped along by responsible leadership.
There is a clear synergy between responsible leadership and change initiatives. Responsibility is about people, what motivates people and how people approach change. Hence the ‘people factor’ or the relations that flow from this, cannot be excluded from change initiatives.
Anne says her research has found that responsible leaders approach change by considering it a learning process: a process in which they, as responsible leaders, want to be at the centre of integration, aiming at targets together and from within a circular system of relational leadership and decision-making.
Change initiatives that are based on responsible leadership involve a degree of flexibility. To illustrate, Anne explains that with this approach, it is not the most fundamental point that all stakeholders within a company understand the company values in the same way or reach such an agreement, as there is a degree of interpretation flexibility. The key focus is rather on the leadership and decision-making processes, and approaching change as a learning process where values and the meaning of values in practice are discussed together to find solutions for any problem that arises while working towards the change targets.
Leading to a better understanding of responsibility integration in business
CSR, implementation instructions, codes of conduct — there are so many in place already, but still cases such as the 2015 Volkswagen malpractice occur. But responsible leadership, through its wider lens, balances the people process and quantitative target. The wider perspective of responsible leadership furthermore advocates responsible action at individual level. People are motivated to adopt responsibility throughout their personal and professional references. And this is a key opportunity for companies. There are many companies that operate well beyond greenwashing; responsible leadership recognise this and build on it as an encouraging framework.
Favourable narrative environment of responsible leadership
What is not so often talked about in respect of the responsibility narrative within companies is that this narrative is shaped through language: how we speak about responsibility throughout society, for example, in general media.
What should also be noted from a favourable narrative environment is that there is not a single leader — it is a matter of the whole. There are many role players, and the narrative is about them collectively. A favourable narrative environment is not a heroic scene, or a media generated set-up: it is about the context. More widely, it’s about who the stakeholders are, what roles they play, and how stakeholders such as customers and sector organisations can contribute to responsible leadership. Decisions are made all the time, and in a favourable narrative environment, perhaps we will not be as ready to judge the wrongs, but focus instead on improved outcomes or future prospects. And it links back to the maturity of the responsible leader: stepping beyond initial reaction, and looking deeper at the context and relations around.
From the understanding of relationship leadership to the construction process, Part 2 of this series will explore the responsible leadership construction process — what this means for business, how responsibility integration can be guided, and why informal relationships are equally important.
Anne Keränen is Responsible Leadership and HR Teacher/Specialist at the Martti Ahtisaari Institute, Oulu Business School, in Finland. Reach Anne at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @AnneMariaKerane.