Debbie Haski-Leventhal, Associate professor at Macquarie University introduces “Strategic CSR: Tools and theories for responsible management” (SAGE, 2018).
In September 2015, the UN General Assembly formally adopted the ‘universal, integrated and transformative’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development(UN, 2015a), a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Just before all Heads of States committed to the SDGs, the UN Global Compact held an important assembly in the UN for business leaders to commit to the same.
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and an outstanding example of a responsible leader spoke at the General Assembly and said:
Every day that we continue to abide poverty, thousands of children under the age of five die and with them, their dreams and our dignity. Every day that we continue to treat the atmosphere as an open sewer, we are irretrievably pushing our planet beyond its limits. And every day that business as usual continues, we delay the opportunities that we know await us in the New Climate Economy. It’s not about doing less harm. It’s about moving to positive contributions. […] We are doing what we can, but not what we must and all this time, we are running out of time. (UN Global Compact, 2015)
Polman and others are an example for a new generation of CEOs and business leaders who are committed to responsible leadership and sustainability. Working with leading corporations for years, I could see the remarkable impact of such leaders on their companies and the world. When it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR), particularly strategic CSR, which is more holistic and comprehensive, the role of such leaders is vital. Naturally, CSR can be led by employees and the community, but without the support of top leadership, it is much harder to achieve a genuine and holistic approach to the role of business in society. As such, I was surprised to find that most books and textbooks on CSR do not include a chapter on responsible leadership.
In 2017 I worked on a new book: Strategic CSR: Tools and theories for responsible management. The book came to be out of mere personal necessity. After years of teaching CSR to hundreds of students, I could not find a CSR textbook that ties both theory and practice well enough together. Believing that students and practitioners need to know the concepts, theories and philosophical approaches to CSR but also acquire the practical tools that allow them to implement this knowledge is what motivated me to write this book. Since business schools have a growing duty to develop leaders who are responsible and ethical, a textbook providing theory and practical examples related to CSR was required. As such, it was clear to me that the book will have to include a full chapter on responsible leadership.
The book includes 12 chapters on CSR and Chapter 6 is exclusively devoted to responsible leadership. With the opening case of Paul Polman, the chapter includes several existing leadership frameworks which can be applied to strategic CSR. It begins with existing definitions and frameworks of sustainable, responsible and ethical leadership. According to the Financial Times Business Lexicon (2017a), responsible leadership is about making business decisions that, next to the interests of the shareholders, also take into account all the other stakeholders, such as workers, clients, suppliers, the environment, the community and future generations. Responsible leaders consider whether their business activities are sustainable and are not polluting the surrounding environment. Such leaders identify systemic risks that the business activities might contribute to, instead of taking short-term risks for quick profits that could endanger the reputation of the company. Responsible leaders care about the welfare of the people in their workforce and ensure sustainability throughout the entire supply chain. It is defined as ‘the art and ability involved in building, cultivating and sustaining trustful relationships to different stakeholders, both inside and outside the organisation, and in co-ordinating responsible action to achieve a meaningful, commonly shared business vision’ (Maak, 2007).
Other frameworks included in this chapter are purpose-driven and value-based leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership and conscious leadership. Purpose driven leaders ‘start with why’ (Sinek, 2011) and know not only their individual purpose, but how to create a purpose for the organisation they lead and a sense of purpose for others, including employees. Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement speech at Harvard in 2017 echoed these ideas:
Today I want to talk about purpose. But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.
Similarly, value-based leadership is about knowing your values and working according to them. Every person has values, including CEOs and organisational leaders, but some might feel they need to leave their values at the door when they put on the hat of a CEO, who needs to ensure financial sustainability for the company. However, research shows that CEOs and leaders with a strong value base, who work and live by their values, create a strong organisational culture, trust and socially responsible companies. Leaders with high levels of benevolence and universalism values, who act according to their values, are in a better position to lead strategic CSR.
Transformational leadership explains how leaders change organisations by creating, communicating and modelling a vision for the organisation and inspiring employees to strive towards this vision. Transformational leaders work by tapping into and inspiring the higher motivations of followers, not by offering monetary rewards and other resource exchanges but by understanding that people are also purpose and vision driven. In addition, transformational leadership has been defined in terms of how such leaders stress self-sacrifice for the long-term good of the larger group or collective.
This can be done through the following process:
Another relevant leadership framework is of servant leadership. It is based on the view that leaders serve followers, rather than vice versa: leaders help employees fulfil their needs and are coaches, stewards and facilitators of employee development. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
The book also details shared leadership, authentic leadership and conscious leaders. The latter is based on the best-selling book Conscious Capitalism, according to which conscious leadership is one of the four tenets of a conscious and purpose driven business. According to the authors of this book, conscious leaders are confident, compassionate, courageous and can make tough decisions while taking full responsibility for those decisions. They practise humility and authentic power. This is power from within rather than an external power based on the trappings of titles and prestige. Such leaders live life from a place of integrity and wholeness and are grounded in values, family, community and work.
Finally, I decided to add my own framework to this chapter by offering a definition of strategic CSR leadership.
Based on the definition of strategic CSR, I defined such leaders as people (in any position) with a strong purpose and a vision to better humanity, who incorporate a holistic CSR perspective within a firm’s strategic planning and core operations, work to meet the interests of a broad set of stakeholders, and strive to achieve maximum economic and social value over the medium to long term. They do so based on a strong purpose and values, while being true to the self and with the aim to serve others. They share the leadership with others in the organisation in order to achieve these goals.
In summary, the discourse on CSR needs to include the essential conversation on responsible leadership, what it means and how it can be utilised to achieve our shared values and goals and address the global challenges we face. I hope the book can contribute to this conversation.