Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Celia Moore, explores why responsible leadership matters and how individuals can help change corporate culture for the better
The question of leadership – and of how well our current leaders are doing – feels like a particularly salient issue right now.
Climate change, Brexit, the presidency of Donald Trump and, most recently, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have all amplified social tensions and divisions in society. As a result, we have seen more calls for “strong leadership!” although what it is meant by that can vary dramatically from person to person.
Of course, leadership affects all our lives in different ways – not only on a national scale but also at work.
Professor Celia Moore joined Imperial College Business School in 2019 after holding positions at Bocconi University in Milan and London Business School, and says her academic work is driven by a desire to make a difference to how people treat each other in the workplace after working for a “psychopathic boss” who sparked in her an intellectual fascination with “why snakes get ahead”.
Integrity, sincerity and compassion
She is now part of the team of academics behind the School’s new Centre for Responsible Leadership, which aims to redefine how large complex organisations think about management.
“There are always going to be things that motivate people to be less responsible leaders: it might be easier, more fun or it may work in their favour to make more selfish and myopic choices,” Moore says. “These are hard temptations to temper all the time. But it means that truly responsible leaders stand out.”
Among those on Celia’s list of people in positions of power who have behaved responsibly are American physician and immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci, who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US since 1984 and Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, who has been praised for her swift response to the COVID-19 crisis.
When you behave consistently with a clear set of values, people will listen.
Celia admires Ardern for “the compassion and speed with which she addressed the crisis, making decisions that were unpopular at first”.
“Unpopular decisions, like the decision to place the country in lockdown, took longer in the UK because people like to be liked,” she says. As a result, many more thousands of people lost their lives to the virus, and – also critically important – there was more damage to the economy.
Meanwhile, Fauci sparked the ire of President Donald Trump for warning that the US leader’s push to reopen the country was likely to result in more deaths and suffering.
“When you behave consistently with a clear set of values, people will listen. When you have integrity, sincerity and respect for others, people will listen.”
Teaching responsible leadership
This is perhaps good advice for many of us in everyday life. One of the lessons Celia likes to pass on to her students is that “you can lead from wherever you are in an organisation”. In other words, you don’t have to be the boss to influence your environment.
“In our own spheres of influence, we have many opportunities to change the way organisational cultures operate,” she says.
The most rewarding moments in her career, and best endorsement of her work, she says, are when former students tell her they have taken what she taught them and used it to navigate a moral dilemma with positive results.
“We have to give people the tools to make the right decisions when they are difficult to make. We should all be aware of the implications of moral decisions,” she says, pointing out that we can look to famous movements which most people believe instigated positive societal change, such as the women’s suffrage movement, and desegregation in the US, for examples of individuals demonstrating ethical leadership.
You can lead from wherever you are in an organisation.
And while to many the task of integrating responsible leadership into business culture may still seem Herculean, Celia argues that we set too high a standard for what we consider positive change.
“Less responsible leadership often meets our more hedonic needs, and that means we’re not going to reach a place where good things happen every time,” she says.
However, she adds, “Businesses change the way they operate all the time. If I didn’t believe in moral progress, I wouldn’t have chosen this profession.”