Managing Change: Organizational Sustainability Leadership

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The main focus of this study is to examine the role of responsible leadership in underpinning sustainable organizational change. Responsible leadership entails both ethical and multifaceted dimensions resulting to organizational sustainability. Responsible leadership is value driven and also driven by relationship based on ethical principles between the leaders and the stakeholders who are linked by shared vision and objectives through which they elevate one another in attaining sustainable value creation and societal change. A responsible Leader instigates vision, build consensus, offer direction and promote positive changes among the subordinates to attain the goals and objectives of an organization. Therefore, responsible and sustainability leadership in organizations represents vital aspect of each organization’s ability to innovate, and to cultivate and maintain its internal dynamism that enables it to survive in the present business environment.


The idea of responsible leadership has been there since time immemorial and the literature on good leadership has not missed the element of responsibility. Responsible leadership in most cases has been associated with accountability or discretion/volition at work. The two connotations of responsible leadership are very much related since individuals become very responsible when they are acting freely at work (Antonakis et al. 2004). Responsibility implies having capacity and accountability required to respond to any problem or situation. Another connotation to responsible leadership is the ability to act in a suitable manner. This connotation is related to responsible action which is accurate, right or advantageous. Behaving responsible implies acting right (Byron 2006).

The society is increasingly calling for responsible leadership both in the business and administration to ensure sustainable development. People want to make sure that organizations embrace and employ good code of conduct, shun corruption, offer enough security, support and promote workers, and protect the environment (Ciulla 1998). Responsible leadership plays a very important role in determining organization’s performance. Studies have shown that several measures are required to assess overall organizational performance. One of the main non-financial performance measures is sustainability (Byron 2006).

Sustainability refers to meeting of the present economic, environmental and social needs of an organization without endangering the ability of the future generation to do the same. The topic of sustainability is very dominant in the field of biology than it is used in the business sector (Held & Koenig-Archibugi, 2003).

Global sustainability encompasses a wide set of interrelated subjects including environmental protection, wiping out of poverty, suitable production and consumption patterns, conservation of species among other issues. To achieve global sustainability, appropriate measures should be put in place economically, socially and spiritually for the survival of the human race. This study offers an overview of some of the major elements of sustainability in organizations and its place within the bracket of responsible leadership (Ciulla 1998).

Given the wider view of sustainability and its many components, an organization’s sustainability performance is measured through many ways. A balanced score card approach to sustainability touches on the perspective of finance (interest of the shareholder), consumers (creating consumer value), internal operations or processes, and organizational learning and growth (Lalor 2009). Other approaches to sustainability encompass moral principles, management, accountability, business relations, and business proceeds, involvement of the community, product/service value, human resource practices, and environmental conservation (Heslam 2004).

As per the balanced score card approach, the multi-dimensional side of sustainability must be taken into consideration when evaluating an organization’s sustainability disposable impact. Comparing the performance of different organizations is often very difficult since the sustainable initiatives have been observed to be varying across many companies and industries (Maak & Pless 2006).

For instance, manufacturing firms may focus too much in minimizing emissions, reducing water usage, and recycling of its by-products, while service firms may emphasize on customer relations, workers improvement, and corporate social responsibility. Therefore, many sustainability measures are reported on voluntary basis, and up to now there are no standard measure measures on sustainability unlike the GAAP used by the accountants across the world. In addition, companies convey their sustainability programs through numerous media and approaches (Maak & Pless 2006).

The aspect of responsible leadership has led to the emergence of a new domain of study known as Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). Positive Organizational Scholarship emphasizes on the positive aspects of an organization and not the negative ones. POS focuses is inspiring the organization rather than what is depressing it, what enhances the employees and the whole systems and not what diminishes the same among other positive concepts (Northouse 2004). Responsible leadership is usually associated with good results in an organization. Responsible leadership is also associated with other characteristics such as good interpersonal relationships, excellent behaviors and emotions, and appreciative inquiry in organizations. Therefore, POS emphasizes on the highest capability of workers in a system (Painter-Morland 2007).

Enforcing sustainable change

Responsible leaders who looking for ways on how to enhance their organization’s performance in the sustainable realm, building up a vision to promote sustainability and conveying the plan should be their primary step. The subsequently challenge is the implementation of the proposed plan. Majority of the companies consider implementation of the corporate sustainability to be the same as implementing organizational transformation (Doh &Stumpf 2005).

As in transformation process, sharing of information through learning is important in both cases. For instance, teaching the consumers and the company employees on the negative or positive impact of the changes in products or process is very important in achieving sustainability. In addition, responsible leaders acknowledge the part played by motivation in transforming the behavior of the people (Doh &Stumpf 2005b).

Other transformational methods can be applied at a wider level. For instance, voluntary or regulated industry can be used as a means of achieving sustainable programs. Competition surrounded the building design and the construction sector entailing ISO certification demonstrates how self regulation plays a big role in the subject of sustainability (Heslam 2004). Lastly, as illustrated in the major towns ranging from the usage of parking to building plans, legislation is another key tool in achieving sustainable development. Responsible leadership demands effective management of the resources within the organization, while sustainability is an important concept for responsible leaders (Held & Koenig-Archibugi 2003).

Basis for responsible leadership

Responsible leadership is a societal and ethical trend that was pushed to become the main subject not only in the modern scandals and the major issues affecting the globe, but also by the realization that most international corporations and their top management have a major role to play in improving the global environment. As a result of this, researchers started to explore the wider concept of leadership in the society in relation to the sustainable development and corporate citizenship (Heslam 2004).

Tentatively, responsible leadership originates from the findings in the leadership ethics, developmental psychology, psycho-analysis, theory of stakeholder and the system theory that sought to assess and comprehend the dynamic processes between leaders and stakeholders that results to responsible leadership traits and responsible activities for social transformation.

The idea behind responsible leadership is reflected by the fact that organizational responsibility is a major leadership problem, which demands leaders who are concerned, who are morally sensitive, open towards different stakeholders within and without the organization, and who are conscious of and understand the role of business in the society (Lalor 2009). Responsible leadership is value driven and also driven by relationship based on ethical principles between the leaders and the stakeholders who are linked by shared vision and objectives through which they elevate one another in attaining sustainable value creation and societal change (Maak & Pless 2006.

Whereas as the traditional studies focused on the perception, and the conduct and clinical psychologists added emotions to decipher the leadership, responsible leadership studies examined the leadership flexibility in relation to the stakeholders and entails ethical aspects such as norms, standards and objectives/principles. Mark and Pless (2006) came up with a model of responsible leadership which assists people to understand the traits of a responsible leader in relation to different stakeholders. This model argues that people who manage business at the top are so engrossed in a network of stakeholder relations with express reports.

In order to rally together all the stakeholders to corporate and work together for a common goal and objective, leaders are required to exercise a particular role. The roles model of responsible leadership is comprised of 9 roles which highlights different traits of a responsible leader. The model differentiates between values founded roles such as leader as a servant, citizen, and thinker and other operational roles of a leader (Doh &Stumpf 2005). The roles model helps in understanding the characters of responsible leaders in relation to the motivational factors driving them.

Roles model of responsible leadership
Figure 1: Roles model of responsible leadership. Source: Pless and Maak (2006)

Motivational drivers for responsible leadership are rooted in ones emotional and moral experience since his/her early stages in life. From a psychological and ethical point of view there are two major drivers that nurture the behavior of responsibility into a person. These are intra-psychic drivers also know as the motivational need system and moral/ethical drivers. Intra-psychic driver’s views leadership based on four features: behavioral traits resulting from unconscious forces, past experiences determining the current situation, internal mind structure and individual thoughts. Moral drivers are either instilled through societal teachings or through systems of punishments (Doh &Stumpf 2005).

Rethinking responsible leadership and sustainable change

Leaders in most cases are described as those who instigate vision, build consensus, offer direction and promote positive changes among the subordinates to attain the goals and objectives of an organization. Within this perspective is the assumption that leaders have advanced view about what is required to succeed in a business. From the same point of view, leaders are knowledgeable in using others in the processes of developing goals and objectives of an organization, and in the implementation of the strategies or plans meant to achieve these goals and objectives (Northouse 2004).

People look upon leaders to give them direction and solutions and in most cases pleased by the sense of steadiness and reliability that comes from the strong leadership. However, such kind of beliefs often leads to absconding of personal responsibility, be an obstacle to understanding the degree of the intricate problem solving, and restricting the level of suitable response to a number of challenges (Lalor 2009). Over dependence on leadership often creates helplessness among the juniors and hampers synergetic impetus required to produce innovative solutions. In sustainable thinking, there is no place for helpless people since each and every person is required in the sustainable course of action (Maak & Pless 2006).

Traditionally, we view transformation as a linear process, moving from one state of balance, through a period of imbalance and turbulence, to another state of balance. If transformation process is well coordinated and managed, the results and the steps required to get these results are often determined before the transformational process are initiated. This model of transformation is based on the traditional theories of management developed from the Newton theory of reductionism. This theory states that human systems are shaped by mechanistic system (Lalor 2009)..

Organizational structures are planned in such a way that it achieves optimal control of each unit such as sections, departments, team/group or workers, and specialization within the work processes. Well managed transformation process is defined as designed, coherent, proficient, aimed at achieving already set goals and is driven by the top leadership. This view of leadership and transformation makes sense in a credibly established business environment (Antonakis et al. 2004).

In the contemporary business environment, accelerated transformation and uncertainty have become the common features. Many systems both in the public and private sector not to forget the third sector are becoming increasingly complex each and every day. The more chaotic the business/ social environment becomes, the more people will yearn for leadership that can rationally manage these challenges and changes associated with them (Byron 2006).

Instead of providing all the solutions, sustainable and responsible leaders develop opportunities for their subjects to come together and debate for their own solutions, thus explores, learn, and come up with realistic action plan o tackling the sustainable challenges. Instead of providing direction, responsible leaders develops and enforce actions in partnership with others, altering them as required to adjust to uncertain changes in the environment every time (Byron 2006). This type of leadership does not rely on the ability to control activities with any level of assurance and predictability. Alternatively, responsible leadership embraces the unavoidability of persistently transforming dynamics of life, while at the same time developing rational course of action with other stakeholders within an integrated structure that offers articulate direction, clear transparency, and adequate flexibility to permit for any correction in between (Lalor 2009)..

Responsible leaders acknowledge that the experience of transformation itself, and the discord it creates, stimulates new thinking, discoveries, and innovation that can rejuvenate organization and the society at large. Any person who takes responsibility and act upon compound sustainable challenges meet the criteria of being called a responsible and sustainable leader whether or not they hold official positions in leadership or have massive political and socio-economic influence. Responsible leaders take rational actions, personally and in collaboration with other stakeholders resulting to end results that cultivates, support, and sustain sound economic, social and environmental systems (Maak & Pless 2006).

Responsible leaders make the idea of sustainability individually relevant, basing the action in individual ethics ahead of self interest. They recognize that everyone can take part in building the future through individual ways of viewing, perceiving, associating and doing things. Responsible and sustainable leaders are well informed, realistic, brave, and individually hopeful in a manner that truly draws other people to the business of cooperating with one another (Lalor 2009)..

Responsible and sustainability leader implies shunning ego driven certainty of right solution and truly engaging others in the push and pull process of decision making in the interest of the whole organization or institution. Sustainability leaders, informed by the wider array of views on how the world operates, recognize the paradox, challenges, and differences in view points are natural factors of sound links of individual interaction.

They understand the anxiety that originates from differences and the disagreements it can generate holding exceptional prospect for breakthrough thinking. Instead of evading or managing disagreements, responsible and sustainability leaders are skillful in exploring differences among people in a manner that improves the potential of recognizing, understanding, and confronting these challenges (Maak & Pless 2006).

The greater knowledge of the ever-transforming human dynamics and the natural anxiety coupled with the potential for change they build, offers inner understanding and operating with varying power relationships. Responsible and sustainability leaders are very aware of how collective understanding can result to optimal output (Byron 2006). They also understands that everything in linked to something else, that we live in a dynamic, ever transforming global environment, and that no individual action can ever see the light of the day in terms of success unless people work together in harmony. This school of thought helps people to become smarter, more reliable and to make choices that complement their actions with others to achieve a common goal. This often results to a successful partnership and collaborative strategies that optimizes the use of resources required to achieve a particular results (Lalor 2009)..

Responsible leadership and organizational competency through knowledge management

At the core, responsible leaders also possess the spirit of learning and knowledge. Responsible and sustainable leaders transform their human resources and operational capacity. All organization learns, but this does not always translate into positive results. There is a possibility that top employees of an organization can learn, but not share the knowledge with subordinates to improve the overall performance of the organization. Responsible leadership is the one that has high capacity to learn, adjust, and transform. In a learning organization learning process are always examined, build up, supervised, and brought into line with the innovative goals of the organization (Maak & Pless 2006).

In the current competitive global market it is very important for organizations to maintain their position in the speedily changing environment. Responsible and sustainability leadership can obtain and utilize knowledge faster than its competitive counterparts and hence can maintain a competitive advantage in the market. The theory of natural selection in the current dynamic business environment has pushed organization learning to the more rapid intervention in organizational development. New ideas emerge almost everyday, thus organizations have to be always on the toes to grasp this knowledge to survive in the industry (Byron 2006).

Lalor (2009) argues that the rate at which an individual or organization learn may become the only way to achieve a competitive edge in the current knowledge intensive environment. Lalor gives an example of Gordon forward, a chief executive officer in Texas steel who reiterated that one of their core competency lied on the rapid realization of the new technology in their output.

The characteristics of a learning organization according to him are constant improvement orientation, consumer focus, group relationships, lean and flexible structures, empowerment, objective and goal driven management. The above characteristics are very different from those of the majority of the organizations in the present day, which focuses mostly on meeting static targets, supervisor focused, strong and powerful top leadership relationship, vertical and flat structures, compliance with the set rules, and control geared style of leadership.

According to Byron (2006), all forms of learning takes place at the individual level and there is nothing like organization learning except symbolically. All learning takes place within humans and organizations only get to learn through its employees and stakeholders who have acquired the new knowledge that the organization never had before. In this case, organizational learning can be categorized in three levels namely: at individual level, group level and organizational level. Responsible and sustainable leadership focuses mostly on system level of organization learning. This is perceived to be more than the human resources capacity and ability to learn. This takes place when an organization institutionalizes human resources intellectual assets and knowledge they have accumulated plus their core competency (Byron 2006).

Organizations also acts as a warehouse for learning, through the mass of knowledge endowed in the human resources and within the organization inform of policies, procedures and voluminous documents. Learning organization creates a mechanism for acquiring information that is shared by all of its employees and is accessible to all the stakeholders (Heslam 2004). Learning organization instills in their employees new structures and practices which enables the learning process to take place more effectively and efficiently. The organization also creates core competency that symbolizes shared learning among its employees in the past and in the present time. As employees walk in and out of the organization, knowledge and competency transfer remain reinforced into their culture and traditions.

The core feature in organization learning is the notion that there is higher order of learning that is engaged as compared to the leaning processes that take place in the training departments which is mostly skill-based. In an organizational learning, the depth of learning at individual level is more perceptive and transformative in terms of structures, perspectives, and routines in an organization. Therefore, organizational learning not only transforms the organization but also changes the minds of the employees in a continuous manner (Heslam 2004).


The current competitive business environment implies the need for innovative learning at the organizational level in order to survive. Responsible and sustainability leadership in organizations represents vital aspect of each organization’s ability to innovate, and to cultivate and maintain its internal dynamism.

Responsible leadership is value driven and also driven by relationship based on ethical principles between the leaders and the stakeholders who are linked by shared vision and objectives through which they elevate one another in attaining sustainable value creation and societal change. Responsible leadership in organization has grown in parallel with other theories of organizations that are part of the management science attempt to act in response to the confrontations and opportunities resulting from the knowledge economy of the present age. No organization can ever make it through the present challenging and ever competitive global business environment if its leaders to act responsibly and operate sustainably.


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