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Ideas & Debate

What it means to lead responsibly

employment
Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

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Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.

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