Transformational CSR Leadership: “Triple Transformation” for Best Practice

A version of this post appeared in CSRWire Talkback.

We often hear about transformational leaders in popular media. These individuals are supposed to be larger than life, provoking and implementing deep-seated changes in established systems. But this way of thinking about leaders and transformations ignores several key issues, especially in the context of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR).

First, while CSR leaders must bring about transformation externally, in contexts as varied as education, healthcare, conservation, and the arts, rarely do they act on their own. Instead, they are compelled to act with different partners — other organizations working in these areas, such as nonprofits or government agencies — whose inputs must be sought for effective implementation of the CSR initiative. Thus, while the CSR agent is doubtless important for guiding the program, this program inevitably changes course because of these partnerships.

Second, leaders in the sustainability and CSR fields often have to transform not just their external environments, but also their internal environments, or the organizations employing them. Effective programs set the stage for greater legitimacy of these individuals within their organizations, while failures or lukewarm outcomes might result in constraints on their operations (e.g., reduced funding for CSR programs that do not effectively showcase a company’s reputation). In other words, leaders’ transformation produces change in their own operations and standing, not just the actions of external constituents.

In a recent peer-reviewed publication, I outlined a new model of transformational leadership, keeping these two issues in mind. I argued that it is the ongoing communication between CSR leaders and their various partners — both internal and external — that influences the kind of transformation ultimately effected. Specifically, leaders must communicate dialogically on three aspects of transformation: the identities of actors involved, the processes used, and the concepts eventually produced. I used this approach to study the influence of noted environmentalist Bill McKibben on both his own organization and the cause of climate change activism. Thus, for instance, I noted how McKibben drew upon multiple identities to legitimize his leadership—as an academic, as a grassroots activist, as an everyday parent and community member impacted by climate change, and even as A-list policy-influencer. The processes of climate change activism were also co-communicated among (and by) and its partners—and relatively prosaic scientific and numerical evidence was often backgrounded in favor of more experiential ways of knowing climate change is real (i.e., “you can see it all around you in the droughts, coastal erosion, floods, and wildfires”). Activism was re-framed to include both picketing in front of the White House, and potential partnerships with insurance companies to highlight climate risks. Finally, the concept of climate change risk was re-framed from a traditional “it impacts future generations” schema to one that emphasized present-day impacts, as well as financial risks to human society (e.g., loss of property, livestock).

This approach to transformational leadership can be applied as a template for “best practices” in the CSR domain. Think about it; for a company to be acknowledged a transformational CSR leader, dialogic communication with internal and external partners on identities, processes, and concepts is crucial.

First, CSR practitioners must carefully deliberate with their partners who they are, and the goals at stake. It is only when practitioners are clear about their own identities, and the identities of the CSR program’s intended partners and beneficiaries, does the program have a chance of actually being successful and helping who it is supposed to.

Second, practitioners should co-decide what the best processes and procedures for a given situation are. What processes are in line with the identities at stake – that is, the strategic goals of the involved agents? Should the company go in for a volunteerism drive, or a philanthropic donation, or a supply chain policy, or something else that will effectively align with these strategic goals? Practitioners should also consider the ground realities of a situation, while deciding about process; for instance the logistics, information technology, and publicity support will influence the viability of a considered process.

Third, it is crucial to deliberate about the concepts and eventual outcomes of the initiative, and if (or how) these align with both the actor identities and procedures being implemented. For instance, if the concept at the heart of a CSR initiative is “mitigation of man-made climate change,” how do the different actors involved define and understand this phenomenon? Are there any points of disagreement, and if so, how may common ground (or at least, a working compromise) be found? The processes and concepts of CSR transformation influence each other, as well. A volunteerism drive seems to make little impact when thinking about the climate change mitigation concept; working with third-party certification nonprofits and regulators to implement a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the organization’s manufacturing or logistics operations would be more meaningful. Practitioners should rank-order different processes, keeping in mind the identities of the CSR actors and the concepts at stake.

This “triple transformation” scheme thus provides a useful and pragmatic roadmap for implementing CSR and environmental sustainability, by keeping in mind both the internal and external restraints facing such actors. Practitioners may further extend this proposed best practice, by identifying how particular contexts (e.g., organization types, industry sectors, issue/cause variation, cultural differences) might call for additional tweaks.


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