June 16, 2014, by ICCSR

The Evolution of Responsible Leadership

Following a public lecture by Sir Mark Moody-Stuart at ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School on 2nd May 2014, the following essay reflects on the qualities of responsible leadership and how such values evolve in leaders and organisations.

Framing responsible leadership

Since the Global Financial Crisis there have been increased calls for more responsible business leadership. Many have voiced concerns on the impact of businesses on stakeholders, questioning the qualities of business leaders, and whether more responsible corporate behaviours can be developed [1].

Frameworks from business ethics suggest that values of business leaders and the values of their corporations may be closely intertwined [1]. The culture of ethics and responsibility within a corporation is formed by the values of its current leaders. However, corporate cultures also incubate certain leadership practices as acceptable, often informed by the legacy of past organisational practices and previous leaders’ behaviours.

Central to the ideas of responsible leadership is the expectation that a business leader acts authentically and true to their own personal values [1]. Most authors acknowledge that personal values emerge iteratively, through processes of re-evaluation and renewal stimulated by individual experience of external events [2]. These processes are rooted in a leader’s personal history, developing through constant interactions with those around them, and orientated towards some internal aspiration or vision of how they see themselves in society [1-3].

The question of whether corporate values are embedded in the same way as leadership qualities is a topic of considerable challenge. Values expressed on corporate websites, annual reports, or in marketing materials are frequently challenged as being superficial and disconnected from actual behaviours. Declared corporate principles are open to considerable scrutiny. Through NGOs and the mass-media, we observe whether business practice is consistent with publicised values, and quickly confront transgressions, perhaps focusing more on deviations from rhetoric than applauding those organisations that remain true to the values they proclaim.

Freeman and Auster [1] suggest that organisational values towards responsibility evolve in parallel with the patterns and processes of its leaders. Thus, a business must first develop an awareness of its history and past interactions with stakeholders. Leaders would question and refine those values in response to the issues faced by contemporary stakeholders. Central to this process would be the vision or aspiration for “who” that organisation intends to be in the world, around which emergent values must cluster.

This essay considers the co-evolution of leader and organisation through stages of historic reflection, stakeholder interaction and refinement. Applying this process to the qualities of responsible leadership demonstrated by Sir Mark, and the values of organisations with which he has been involved.

The co-evolution of organisational and leadership values

Shell’s history can be traced to its origins as a family-owned import/export business in 1833. The organization started as a small family shop importing seashells from the Far East. The company rapidly progressed to commodity trading and transport in specially commissioned oil tankers through the newly-opened Suez Canal. These historic beginnings possibly equipped the organization with capabilities for building trusted commercial relationships with trading partners and governments. Today, Shell’s business principles reflect those early beginnings where “core values of honesty, integrity and respect for people are part of everything [Shell] do” . For the responsible organization, an objective to build respectful and trusted relationships may be the foundation on which other values might evolve.

In his book, Sir Mark reflects on his early career history with Shell, and the challenges of the societies in which he was working as a field geologist in 1967. It is perhaps fundamental to Sir Mark’s style of leadership, that these early chapters reflect on the social, political, and health issues he saw around him in those countries and the role of government in solving these problems. In his discussion, Sir Mark can be seen to seek out opportunities to listen to others’ perspectives, demonstrating considerable empathy with the local communities around him and concern for their well-being. To demonstrate empathy may be one of the qualities inherent in responsible leaders that build through their observation and experience of imbalanced relationships.

Sir Mark speaks warmly of “experiencing and observing the evolution of communities and ponders the conditions which cause some to “suffer quagmires of failure (p. 1)” whilst others develop happily and successfully [5]. Reflecting on being an outsider and guest in those countries, Sir Mark queried the right and power of external organisations to object to, or instigate, change when national governments fail their people. This suggests a mindset of responsible leadership to question the status quo, to strive for better, rather than passively accept a sub-standard current state.

There have been many times where Sir Mark’s development as a responsible leader, and Shell’s development towards a more responsible company, are closely intertwined. Sir Mark spoke openly about the claims of irresponsibility faced by Shell following crises in Nigeria and with protests over disposal of the Brent Spar. Sir Mark’s suggested that understanding those hostile perspectives was critical to resolution of conflicts. In such circumstances the responsible leader might foster open and transparent dialogue with stakeholders, and strive for a common vision with internal and external constituents. The success of this approach is apparent in Shell which has significantly improved “its social and environmental record through self-scrutiny, two-way dialogue with stakeholders, and open disclosure of its performance…to [become] a leader in global corporate citizenship (p. 64)” [6].

The revolution in global and leadership values

In the 21st Century, Sir Mark’s leadership journey is interwoven with the pursuit of corporate responsibility at a global level, as he became deeply involved in the works of the UN Global Compact. In his writing of these times, Sir Mark builds upon his earlier experiences, and promotes the construction of forums and coalitions to foster discourse around responsibility. In these coalitions, Sir Mark advised clear minded focus around simple achievable objectives. It is notable that Sir Mark and Shell together championed the inclusion of UNGC principles that businesses should actively work against corruption, demonstrating perhaps the co-evolution of leadership and global values around a common vision.

Summarising the qualities of responsible leadership observed though Sir Mark’s discussions, three things appear to be significant: firstly, the acts to engage in courageous conversations in often challenging circumstances; secondly, the motivation to encourage collaborations with purposeful shared vision; thirdly, maintenance of questioning and reflective attitudes to seek out better solutions. These qualities amongst others have enabled this responsible leader to make a significant global impact on businesses, governments and civil society. Former UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch-Brown best captures this sprit when he describes Sir Mark as “…an unlikely, but very effective revolutionary (p. XV)” [5]. We thank Sir Mark for sharing his revolution in responsible leadership with the ICCSR.


1.         Freeman, R.E. and E.R. Auster, Values, Authenticity, and Responsible Leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 2011. 98: p. 15-23.

2.         Tams, S. and J. Marshall, Responsible careers: Systemic reflexivity in shifting landscapes. Human Relations, 2011. 64(1): p. 109-131.

3.         Maak, T. and N.M. Pless, Responsible leadership in a stakeholder society – A relational perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 2006. 66(1): p. 99-115.

4.         Maak, T., Responsible leadership, stakeholder engagement, and the emergence of social capital. Journal of Business Ethics, 2007. 74(4): p. 329-343.

5.         Moody-Stuart, M., Responsible Leadership: Lessons From the Front Line of Sustainability and Ethics. First ed. 2014, Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing, . 366+XXII.

6.         Mirvis, P.H., Transformation at Shell: Commerce and citizenship. Business and Society Review, 2000. 105(1): p. 63-84.

i.  http://www.shell.com/global/aboutshell/who-we-are/our-values.html


By Paul Caulfield,

Lecturer in Responsible and Sustainable Business, International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, Nottingham University Business School

His research and teaching interests include Corporate Responsibility and new strategies for Sustainability, Corporate Community Investments, Employee Volunteering, Base of Pyramid, Social Enterprise, Eco-entrepreneurship and Sustainable Business Design.

A video of a recent interview with Sir Mark Moody Stuart is available from the ICCSR website.

Sir Mark Moody Stuart’s book Responsible Leadership: Lessons From the Front Line of Sustainability and Ethics is now available: http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail.kmod?productid=3924



Posted in EVENTS at the ICCSR