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Responsible leadership

In this article, Professor Mollie Painter explores a key responsible leadership case study.
Person reading a newspaper, their face is obscured by the paper.
© Roman Kraft on Unsplash
Joanne Cuilla argued that leaders must be both ethical and effective. And in the responsible leadership literature, we see that these are indeed important criteria. Sometimes being very principled does not really translate to desirable outcomes. We often see this in political leaders who are incapable of reaching across the aisle to develop areas of consensus, and ultimately fail to bring others along in establishing real change.

See for instance, Jimmy Carter’s Impact and Legacy

The opposite is perhaps true of Nelson Mandela, who described himself as follows: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Mandela was often criticised by his own comrades in the fight against Apartheid for being too forgiving and reconciliatory towards the perpetrators, and for the way in which he reached out to white South Africans post-Apartheid. But ultimately, his leadership was incredibly successful in establishing a peaceful transition in very turbulent times.

Searching for Mandela: The saint as a sinner who keeps on trying

What we may take away from these historical cases is that responsible leadership requires the ability to deal with ambiguity and to ultimately be responsive to the complex particularities that one faces at specific historical junctures. Responsibility is ultimately ‘response-ability’, i.e. the capacity to respond to situations meaningfully with values-driven arguments and actions.

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Leadership tools for ethical problem-solving

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