Where’s the Leadership in CSR?

This post also appeared in CSRWire Talkback.

leadOne of the projects I’m currently working on examines the role of leadership in corporate social responsibility. The first thing that struck me while going through all the available CSR material was how little it had to say on leadership, compared to (say) stakeholdersthe “business case” or even global/local adaptations. Oh, we throw the term “leadership” around a lot when we talk about “leading corporate citizens” or visionary CEOs (and the not-so visionary ones, à la BP’s Tony Hayward), but few practitioners and scholars actually think about the leadership concept.

So why does it make sense to think about leadership in CSR?

For starters, corporate leaders frame the work culture and codes of conduct espoused by their firms. By “leaders”, I don’t mean just the CEO or HR manager, but (going back to the basic definition of leadership as a process of influence) any influential employee across the board who may produce some change in the company. In the CSR context, it’s well-recognized that several projects are spearheaded by corporate leaders, from the large-scale World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which began as the brainchild of 200 CEOs from across the world, or smaller employee donation-drives and volunteerism initiatives, so that both personal and managerial influence become salient. Leaders and leadership structures thus clearly matter for CSR – and neglecting these runs the risk of CSR failing to gather steam or encountering insurmountable obstacles.

Second, while the stakeholder framework according to which so much of modern-day CSR is conducted focuses on moral and legal “stakes” of all interested parties (rather than just the firm’s), it tends to perpetuate the notion that all stakeholders have equal influence. Really? UN-blessed NGOs are just as influential as local NGOs? Local NGOs are just as influential as unorganized communities impacted by corporate action? Unorganized communities are just as powerful as a single civic-minded person? Clearly, real-life situations have deeply embedded relations of domination and influence, so that all stakeholders do not have equally powerful (or even legitimate) voices. Nor are all stakeholders (either corporate or community-based) equally innovative and forward-thinking.

It makes sense then to consider a framework of relative dominance, and integrating leadership among/with stakeholders might be a good way to realize this. How does leadership emerge in the CSR context, and what are the issues, who are the actors, what are the processes that get sidelined in this process of domination?

We should consider how stakeholders organize among themselves (for instance, Grassroots Economic Organizing or GEO), networks of various NGOs that include some and exclude others (and the reasons why), leadership structures in various global/local contexts that enable a certain class or community to lead and dominate others, and so on. Thus, while much of the management field tends to think of leadership as rooted in the firm alone, CSR planners and practitioners need to re-define leadership for, by, and among stakeholders (including the firm).

To do this, we need to go beyond the traditional focus on individuals(either corporate managers or NGO executives) as leaders, and contemplate what leadership means among various stakeholders. Some interesting themes may be, depending on the context and location:

Innovative practices, channels, and technologies of CSR, thereby setting trends ahead of other actors.

Exemplary behavior, as in prior track record, good conduct, and an inspirational model for others to follow.

Prominence, in terms of reputation (history and prior track record with communities), financial performance, and links with important agencies (international or domestic).

Openness to learning from the environment, converting bad situations to learning moments, and being open to dialogue with concerned stakeholders.

Networking with stakeholders (corporate, community, or governmental) via initiating, maintaining, strengthening ties among individuals and groups.

Finally, considering leadership, not just “leaders,” enables us to connect CSR directly to what the firm is and does, and draw a continuum for ethical business practices, ranging from the positively transformational to the downright destructive. The BP disaster has shown not just Tony Hayward as a bad leader, but exposed a largely inept and unethical leadership discourse within the company, with stories surfacing of eerily similar corporate irresponsibility in Texas immediately prior to the Gulf spill and callous leadership behavior at Deepwater Horizon rig itself. Leadership thus presents an important bridge between CSR and the firm’s business operations.  So why not think deeper about leadership in CSR?


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