Exploring a New Understanding of Responsible Leadership — Part 3

Part 3 of 3 reflects on responsible leadership integration and how leaders can enhance the integration process

is a management and international business researcher at the Martti Ahtisaari Institute, Oulu Business School, in Finland.

Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 and .

Part 1 of this series introduced her in-depth research in which focus was shifted from the individual leader, to leader relations. In Part 2, Anne shared the constructionist perspective of her research, and how this is shaping responsible leadership. In this final Part 3 of the series, Anne reflects on responsible leadership integration and how leaders can enhance the integration process.

In exploring responsibility integration, I have discovered that formal leaders should realise how important it is to involve others in the leadership process. I have found that this can be realised by leaders positioning themselves in the middle of the leadership space. Then, within this space, the role of listening and understanding the leadership context becomes critical. For everyday work, leaders can implement the core of my research by looking beyond the immediate and obvious roles of conventional leadership. This means that leadership is not tied to obvious leadership roles. I have found this to be central to the responsible leadership integration process.

Enhancing the integration process

From leadership literature, I have identified that the discussion of how to best integrate responsibility in practice and the business leaders’ role in this, is still struggling. Yet, it is known that the success of integration processes depend on leaders within organisations. Based on this, I have focused my research on a challenge identified from the existing leadership literature, namely, that leadership can serve as an important medium to enhance responsibility integration in organisations. In outcome of the research, I have described various possible ways in which leaders can enhance the integration of responsibility in organisation.

One such way in which leaders can enhance the integration process is through developing and enriching cooperation. This cooperation refers to cooperation among stakeholders both within and outside, and organisation. It is critical that this process allows for the ‘opening up’ towards external stakeholders. What I’ve explained through this research is that business is not an isolated environment; business is embedded in a surrounding environment and community. This context is well-suited to opening up the leader’s role towards responsibility.

Contexts and boundaries

What the research has however highlighted is the various contexts from different environments and organisations, each emphasising a different yet contextual aspect of responsibility. The context is different from a family-owned company to a multi-national company; therefore, responsibility integration is different. I have found that leaders must be aware of the sensitivity of responsibility integration, to the narrative. In practice, this translates to both hard and soft approaches. Through the leaders who participated in the research, I was guided to the discovery that responsibility integration is not the result of skills and competencies but rather also the contextual narrative resources. Formal leadership training did not feature prominently in leverage responsibility integration — but rather, other and often more informal resources for integration.

What is becoming increasingly recognised and was confirmed in this research is that responsibility is not a phenomenon that is confined to the specific boundaries of an organisation. And therefore, responsibility integration disseminates across the everyday work of leadership. It becomes a production of co-creation and engagement by many participants and stakeholders both within and outside of an organisation. Just as what is being taught about responsibility in business schools cannot be restrained to the lecture room, so can the practice of responsibility not remain within the confines of an organisation. Business schools need to reach beyond the class structure; businesses need to reach to outside the organisation. What I also have discovered through this research is that informal learning forms part of responsibility integration. Internally, this can be gained through information discussion set-ups, delving informally yet deeply into exchange. By having these value discussions, responsibility integration becomes tangible for practice. For the organisation, solving problems on what is valued by the organisation is a practical approach for responsibility integration. The same applies to a local level, leveraging responsibility integration through recognising values and the need for value discussions. External to the organisation, this can be gained through our exchange with others; and other cultures. The informal context to leadership is vastly different from our conventional understandings of leadership. Yet without widening the perspective, I believe responsibility integration will remain vague.

The role of the individual in leveraging responsibility integration should also receive recognition. Change can start because of individuals. What was evident from my research is that an individual outside of formal leadership can demonstrate how change is not cast in stone as to how it should be implemented. There are different methods and ways for responsibility integration,

Challenges for integrating responsible leadership

There is still the prevailing concept of ‘hard business’ with core expectations as to how business leaders should act or perform. Often what is required is time, beyond the immediate leader. This is evident in corporate responsibility, which is driven by longer timeframe goals or goals that are not entirely tangible for the short-term. Likewise, building the basis for responsible leadership is equally a longer timeframe action. Yet in practice, this creates challenges for conventional quarterly-reporting systems.

Another critical challenge is the lack of knowledge or ‘seeing’ of responsibility perspectives. For a fast-growing business, the responsibility perspective might be clouded and what is happening outside of the organisation may become overlooked. An inward focus is a risk to responsibility integration. This can however be responded to through learning and creating a common attitude that is open to discussion and culture, but also through opening up of business and making business an integral part of society.

Focusing on the new generation leaders and guiding responsibility integration as being beyond the self, without placing too technical focus on responsibility is another way of leading in perspectives on responsibility. There are good examples, we need to find these good examples and take it forward through integration into management.

Deep understanding for the process

But perhaps at the core of it all, I should emphasise that responsibility integration is a process and this process aspect should be deeply understood. From my research examples, it came down to the fundamental questioning of where business is going. Perhaps we should not allow ourselves to be consumed with the bigger picture of responsibility. There are new aspects to responsible leadership, such as responsibility as a social-technological-community complex. What stood out for me in this research were the winning factors, such as community. The role of the community is known, but what I found to be resonating stronger, is how it can be a winning factor for the bigger picture of responsible leadership integration. Through community, it becomes easier to steer responsible leadership in the right direction. And this, feeds back to a tangible way of approaching everyday leadership.

Read and .

Anne Keränen

Anne Keränen is Responsible Leadership and HR Teacher/Specialist at the Martti Ahtisaari Institute, Oulu Business School, in Finland. Reach Anne at and follow her on Twitter at .

The Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative exists to catalyze development of Global Responsibility in leadership and practice worldwide. Founded 2004.