Exploring a New Understanding of Responsible Leadership — Part 2
Part 2 of 3 explores leadership as a social construction process
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 second 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. Read part 1and part 3.
It was through research interviews with business leaders and the narratives shared, that I discovered, somewhat unexpectedly, the importance of considering leadership as socially constructed and relational.
Not thought to be as prominent when the research was initiated, it came to the fore in asking leaders how they considered and defined responsible leadership, social construction and relationships. It wasn’t as much about the leader him/herself, but about the people around them, and the relationships that this created.
Returning to theory after discovering this, it resonated with new arising leadership theories, which also indicated the importance of considering leadership as socially constructed and relational, and leadership as a shared phenomenon.
The role of narrative environment in responsibility construction
The narrative environment is important, as it reveals the context of leadership and responsibility. The individual leaders’ accounts and stories were found to be less important compared to what the individuals tell about the social worlds of which they are part.
Through narrative — language as a means of communication, reflection and stories — we have certain expectations of leadership that are embedded in society, and this narrative is strongly shaping what leadership is about. However, we are not so much talking about this or exploring this when talking about responsible leadership within companies.
In sharing their leadership situations, the leaders interviewed explained that within these societal expectations, reputational leadership had to be earned first. Only after the reputation as successful, good and tough business leader has been earned, do responsibility issues come into play, and are discussed more deeply. Without this progress, the leader could be marginalised. An overly challenging interpretation may be ignored and marginalised.
These societal expectations, which include institutional expectations, require our critical consideration and we need to evaluate how they contribute to or hinders responsible leadership. It also comes down to what is being taught about business leadership in business schools, as well as what is being written in business leadership publications and magazines, and media in general.
Conversations about responsible leadership are lacking enormously and I found that business leaders are cautious about how they initiate responsible leadership discussions. Therefore, dialogue about responsible leadership and what it means to be a responsible leader is key in responsibility construction. Dialogue must be varied. It should open up to viewpoints and different narratives about responsible leadership.
This is why language plays a key role in responsibility construction. Our understanding and meaning of shared responsibility leadership language can be vastly different between companies, business schools and even countries. We use terms that are not necessarily shared in understanding, and this can only be uncovered in practice through dialogue and shared experiences, and through conscious listening on the leader’s part. It does necessitate a time element; the quickest solution is not a guarantee.
Conversations about responsible leadership should also be open discussions involving all stakeholders. Without such a social construction approach, responsible leadership issues will remain abstract. For responsible leadership to succeed, it is critical that the issues across all stakeholder levels are openly discussed and that leadership is co-constructed (ie. shared) among all stakeholders with shared language. Keränen describes this as the social construction of responsible leadership.
Socially constructed among people
From the business leader data gathered, I identified four main stories on how leaders constructed responsibility:
- Responsibility as something that a leader needs to be involved in/committed to as a person;
- Responsibility as something that is shared and built through identity. Compared metaphorically to the kind of sharing among family members. This is supported by the long-time perspective of business, from one generation to others.
- Responsibility as something that people share through a form of community and purpose; and
- Responsibility as a vision of a larger good for the society as a whole.
From the perspective that responsible leadership is socially constructed among people, I found that based on context, some constructions are more prominent than others. For the small, local company, responsibility construction from a viewpoint of sharing responsibility among personnel may be relevant, but for the large international company, a human rights focus may contribute more significantly to the building of responsibility leadership. Responsibility construction is not the same for all leadership contexts. It means that leaders may need to find and focus on what special responsible leadership issues may be relevant to its specific context.
The leaders who participated in this research have provided examples of their company values — the typical values that one might expect from such companies. However, ways in which these values are effectively put into practice were found to be lacking, especially when complicated by further obstacles such as ethical issues.
To bridge this challenge, the responsible leader has to maintain a very clear presence among all stakeholders and play an active role in facilitating the solving of problems among them. Dialogue and shared stakeholder input were again found to be pivotal in problem-solving under responsible leadership construction. The leaders who participated in this research further expanded this to responsible leadership between multinational corporations and non-governmental organisations across geographical and company-type boundaries.
Contexts and relations
While recognising that there are global phenomena that drive responsible leadership, responsibility in leadership has to be a locally interpreted construction that builds on the historical roots of local business.
From the perspective of Finland, there were local differences in responsible leadership, in comparison to global responsible leadership. But besides context differences, both equally serve the responsible leadership purpose. What this means is that the blueprint for responsible leadership has to be fine-tuned for the context to which it will be applied, and it requires in-depth understanding on the leader’s part.
In the research I distinguished between visible and invisible leader relations. Visible relations are the obvious connections, such as between the leader and the stakeholders. But at the same time, there are institutions that are perfecting what responsible leadership is about and how this plays out in business — this is an invisible relation. This is offering a field of higher variety of influence factors, all shaping our understanding of responsibility leadership.
A good way to gain a broader understanding of responsibility, according to the business leaders who were involved in this research, was the opening of organisational boundaries and participation in social settings. On a practical front, this encourages both informal and formal ways of broadening social interactions in order to promote responsible leadership.
Integration in business
Through this constructionist perspective on responsible leadership, more inclusive responsibility integration in business can be promoted. A central role is given to language by adopting a socially constructed approach to leadership. In opening up to this new approach to leadership, Anne says experience based dialogue — the sharing of experiences — can guide the promotion of responsibility integration.
From the perspective of business, this means that we should balance formal ways and approaches of enhancing responsibility — i.e. strategy, process, tools and report with new approaches including:
- Creation of shared understanding, which is embedded in culture;
- Communication and dialogue, giving voices to as many as possible;
- Relationships with people, knowing people;
- Leaders acting and being among people; and
- Demanding from leaders to deeply sense, listen, and discuss.
What is apparent from this research is that meaning generated from social interaction is what constructs responsible leadership. It is not merely a property inherent in individual leaders. It is also this interaction and construction that gives meaning to responsibility, while the interpretation of responsibility among people adds to the relational element of responsibility construction.
The business leaders interviewed reported that they have learned responsibility through challenging work, which has prompted the courage for responsibility, through the stories of others (family, colleagues, personal or other relations) but also the difficulties from these relations, and thought-expanding experiences across countries, cultures and networks. Formal training in responsibility construction was never mentioned by these leaders — which again critically points to the fact that we need to question how we think responsible leadership is constructed.
The constructionist perspective if my research adds a critical understanding to responsible leadership. The final Part 3 of this series will explore responsibility integration, and how this new approach to responsibility leadership can form part of everyday leadership.
Read Part 1 and Part 3: Exploring integrated responsible leadership.
Anne Keränen is Responsible Leadership and HR Teacher/Specialist at the Martti Ahtisaari Institute, Oulu Business School, in Finland. Reach Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @AnneMariaKerane.