Responsible Leadership: how to reimage leadership in a world full of grand challenges

Although capitalism is probably one of the greatest inventions of the human species, business has also contributed to many of the serious challenges our society faces, including global warming, water shortages, growing inequality, and poverty. But business is also the answer to many of these challenges. Because it’s business that produces food, cures diseases, and creates employment … and it is also business that can do these things sustainably.

The growing awareness of the role of business in society has also resulted in the rise of new businesses and start-ups that have sustainability at the core of their business model. One example is ‘Too Good To Go’, a company founded in Denmark that has developed a smartphone app to reduce food waste and carbon dioxide production. Another example is ‘Tony Chocolonely’, a Dutch company that puts sustainable jobs at the core of its mission and actively bans slavery and child labour from its operations.

But it is not only these companies that are embracing sustainability. Sustainability is becoming the new minimum and every company should be in the sustainability business today. And this means that incumbent firms are also increasingly putting sustainability at the core of their strategy.

In this white paper by the Centre for Excellence in Leading Adaptive Organisations, we focus on which type of transformation is needed within organisations, and, more specifically, in the way we lead organisations? We zoom in on the concept of ‘responsible leadership’, which the Financial Times defines as “making decisions that, next to the interests of shareholders, also take into account other stakeholders like workers, clients, suppliers, the environment, community, and future generations.”

Based on a literature review and a series of company interviews, we reflect on what responsible leadership entails and how leaders can resolve some of the day-to-day tensions they experience between profitability and sustainability.

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