Working for a better world

SBE researcher Ursula Glunk 

SBE researchers Ursula Glunk and Mariëlle Heijltjes share their views on responsible leadership

“If you could choose, which world would you want to live in?” asks Ursula Glunk, PhD. “Do you want to live in a world where you’re constantly being deceived, where you always have to be on guard against a knife in your back? No, I want a better world, fuelled by ethical behaviour.”

Her colleague, Professor Mariëlle Heijltjes, PhD, adds: “We need to make people aware of what they themselves can do, one person at a time. What does responsible leadership mean for you, in your job?”

Big questions, which reflect the big challenges of our times. Researchers at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) are delving into the issue of responsible leadership, and ethical leadership as a subfield within it. To meet the challenges of the future, they say, a radical change is needed in how organisations are led.

“We’re moving in the right direction. Awareness is growing, organisations are making progress, and it’s getting easier to discuss these things”, says Glunk, senior lecturer in Organisational Behaviour. “But it’s often unclear what’s real – too many organisations just have ‘responsible leadership’ on their website as window dressing.”

Systemic crisis

So what exactly is responsible leadership? Glunk: “We’re seeing a new focus in organisations. Many used to revolve solely around the ‘exploitation’ of the environment and optimal use of resources or market players. But many organisations now realise that it can’t go on like that. Responsible leadership is the change from the traditional shareholder/self-centered mindset in which the ultimate priority is profit maximisation, to a mindset that takes all stakeholders and the common good into account.”

Heijltjes, professor of Managerial Behaviour, explains: “We’re currently dealing with a systemic crisis. Things are crumbling on all fronts: look at the banks, the euro, the Occupy movement. Everything is coming at once. In this way, the problems and challenges of our time are fundamentally different from those of the Industrialisation, for example. Those problems played out separately, on economic, social, technological, and perhaps also ecological terms. Now you can no longer see developments separately from one another. Everything is interconnected, and if you take one measure, you don’t know what effect it will have on the whole. You have to accept the complexity of our times, the uncertainty.”

“The realisation is growing that the traditional approach has fallen short. People are starting to understand that we need to make changes, to let go of the current approach and move over to a new system. This is not just about our ecological predicament – we’ll need five planets to meet our needs, if we keep going the way we are – but also about our views on leadership. This is why responsible leadership is gaining momentum. It’s about having a sense of the world around you, thinking about the role that you and your organisation play in society. How do you lead your own life? How do you ensure a work/life balance among your employees? How do you deal with environmental issues, and contribute to society so that our descendants can enjoy a level of wellbeing equal to ours?”

Cooperative solutions

Complex problems call for collaborative solutions. “We talk now about co-creation”, says Glunk. She quotes an African proverb cited by the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Heijltjes: “Simple problems no longer exist. These days, various parties have to work together to achieve a solution. This requires a fundamentally different vision of leadership. Now you’re just a fellow actor – you no longer have all control.”

Responsible leadership, then, is a cooperative phenomenon. “It’s not about self-centredness”, says Glunk. “I’m not impressed by egomania. Instead, it’s about integrity. This involves being humble; for example, being aware of your own flaws. And being a ‘servant-leader’; that is, wanting first and foremost simply to serve. It’s also about courage, which means acting in accordance with moral principles, even if you won’t personally benefit.” Heijltjes: “You must be conscious of your role as an agent of social change, ensure that you’re working together to make society better.”

Developing leaders

Heijltjes, along with being associate dean of SBE, is director of Postgraduate Education (PGE) at the School and a board member of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), an international network of companies and educational institutions aiming to develop responsible leaders. In the context of both PGE and GRLI, she holds workshops and presentations on the personal and professional development of responsible leaders.

“For GRLI, for example, I co-hosted an in-company workshop for the Daimler Benz Corporate Academy in Singapore. The participants came from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, with the aim of increasing their awareness of sustainability in the automotive industry. As a case study we looked at the sustainability policies of the courier service TNT. Then we put Daimler under the microscope, looking at how the participants themselves could apply their new insights and discussing what globally responsible leadership meant for them personally. This approach helps people to address the big issue of sustainability, but also to relate it to their own role and what they themselves can do, one person at a time.”

“Closer to home, SBE’s use of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is teaching our students co-creation right from the outset. You can’t produce responsible leaders from a lecture-based learning environment; there, students just rely on the wisdom of the professor. With PBL, the School is well on its way to giving to its students some of the things they’ll need as responsible leaders – they’re all involved together in co-creating solutions. But in a way, this approach has become so self-evident for us that we no longer mention it enough. Maastricht University has become too modest in this and doesn’t make it explicit that the co-creation experience is an important added value of PBL.”

Glunk, meanwhile, is working on a research project on the effects of ethical leadership, involving eight companies and some 300 respondents. She also coaches organisations and executives, and coordinates SBE’s Leadership Development Trajectory, aiming to prepare the business leaders of today and tomorrow for the challenges ahead. “I help leaders to discover their moral compass. What are my values? How do I put them into practice? How do I contribute to co-creation?”

She also teaches ethics for bachelor’s students and supervises related master’s theses. “I want to contribute something to their personal development. I want to educate the leaders of the future, discuss their views on ethical leadership. It helps them become aware of how idealistic you can be, how realistic you have to be, what types of people they’ll face in the business sector. These discussions get them thinking, make them aware of the choices they’ll have to make, consider which approach they want to take.”

Personal choice

What is clear is that while responsible leadership can be taught, it can’t be forced. “Ethical leadership is a personal choice, one that people only become aware of over time”, says Glunk. “For example, by discovering how nice it is to just to be able to trust each other and how unpleasant it is when people do want to work with you, but in a purely instrumental way. In this, some people and organisations have to be pioneers. They have to take the risk, stick their necks out in the transition phase while it’s still unclear what the benefits will be. Leaders must ask themselves what role they want to play. They have a choice.”

And anyone can be a leader, Heijltjes emphasises. “Leadership is not just a matter for top managers. I want to emphasise that even if you’re not at the top of an organisation, you can still set an example. Both to the people who report to you, and to the people you report to. It starts small, with yourself. At first it’s a process of trial and error. Then it’s picked up by the organisation, then by just about everybody. It’s like an oil slick, but a good one – and one that SBE can and should play an important role in.”

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