Shaping the modern view of responsible leadership

Over the past decade Professors Nicola Pless and Thomas Maak have been shaping the discussion on responsible leadership and mapping the way the world thinks about it.

A pioneering textbook in 2005 and a seminal article in the Journal of Business Ethics took a much-needed academic approach to the topic and inspired others to think of leadership not just in terms of a leader’s relationships within organisations, but on the basis of their interactions with a multitude of stakeholders inside and outside the organisation.

Based on a top executive study they conceptualised responsible leadership and identified four different mindsets that influence how individual leaders define what it means to act in a socially responsible way and what weight they might give it in relation to traditional leadership values.

They focus on three questions: what is responsible leadership, what makes a responsible leader, and how do we develop these qualities?

“This research is at the interface of leadership and corporate responsibility,” Prof Pless said. “Leaders create relationships with stakeholders as followers to create outcomes, but outcomes from a responsible leadership perspective are not only to make profit but also to reduce the environmental footprint and contribute to the broader common good.”

Responsible leadership is a concept that is gaining great traction, at both an academic and a corporate level. Researchers around the globe are engaging, a Global Responsible Leadership Consortium has been established, responsible leadership regularly appears in conference agendas and teaching curricula, and companies not founded on social principles are making the shift.

Prof Pless is now developing a scale to make the principles of responsible leadership measurable, allowing companies to identify leaders who share their philosophy and corporate values and aspire to create a positive business culture and sustainable value for business, society and future generations. Prof Maak has a particular interest in the ethical dimension around responsible leadership.

Their academic collaboration began in Europe, where they were colleagues at leading universities in Switzerland, Spain and France, and continues today at UniSA, where Prof Pless holds a Chair of Positive Business and Prof Maak a Chair in Responsible Leadership.

Both have played leading roles in the Neuroscience of Leadership project, the world’s first MBA neurodynamics study, and worked with industry to examine the potential of developing responsible global leaders through international service-learning programs. That project involved more than 70 partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers who worked in multicultural teams with leading social enterprises and UN agencies in developing countries.

Both also have experience consulting to some of the world’s biggest companies, including Shell, Volkswagen and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Prof Pless held board and executive positions in Switzerland, Belgium and the US, including with the World Bank Group.

Professor Nicola Pless and Professor Thomas Maak