Making responsible leadership our business

University of Birmingham

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2019 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2019 this involves 15 free events, workshops and training sessions taking place between 25 February and 26 March, along with thought leadership videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our sponsors – the University of Birmingham, Aston University, Curium Solutions and CIPD - all events are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more here.

A great deal has been written in the media on the importance of strong business leaders to a business’s success.  The notion of ‘responsible leadership’ as a motto for various policies seems to be ever present in the public sphere of many businesses, local communities and public life, but does this mean that we have been developing irresponsible leaders? When it comes to competitive advantage and unlocking leadership potential, our research makes it increasingly clear that organisations with diverse workforces perform better because they tend to attract top talent, have greater employee satisfaction and are better at problem solving, decision making and innovation.  The research states that companies in the top quartile for unlocking responsible leadership potential, including diversity, are more likely to have higher financial returns than their industry average.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the likes of the late Sergio Marchionne, who led not one, but two failing businesses from the brink of collapse to ruddy health (the now-merged Fiat and Chrysler) and who worked a gruelling number of hours each day, had single-handedly created business magic.  But the truth is that success comes from the work of all employees and the management/leadership teams in these businesses: the business leader’s essential contribution is to unlock the leadership potential in their workforce.

How is this done? In many varied ways, but business research suggests that these are key success factors:

Developing inclusive leadership

This means establishing clear aims and a sense of direction for the business which is understood throughout the organisation and includes each individual employee understanding their role within that business.   

A step change in leadership development

Providing time and resources for staff development, including home-grown talent, and not writing off someone’s potential before they have been given an opportunity, with support, to show what that potential might be.  Remember that one of Alex Ferguson’s biggest successes at Manchester United was the nurturing of home-grown talent. Understanding the importance of diversity and the need to create an organisational culture that supports achievement by all and that removes barriers to the development of potential.

Encouraging and Rewarding Innovation

Develop a culture which rewards innovation, celebrates the best and encourages progress at all levels.  It is important to create and develop thought leadership throughout the organisation, from the top down, encouraging teams and individuals to come up with new ideas and use their own initiative, while at the same time allowing room for mistakes. 


Mentoring is a powerful tool for building bridges into leadership. The evidence highlights the value and power of peer-to-peer learning networks as creative vehicles for unlocking hidden potential within the business.

The desire for responsible leadership has never been in such high demand, with Brexit, the financial crisis, the shifting political landscape, and disclosure in business, public services and cultural institutions highlighting the consequences and impact of irresponsible leadership. Responsible leadership asks us to think about is how we address some of the significant challenges, such as globalisation, disruptive technology, political uncertainty and environmental challenges ahead of us. How do we develop a more inclusive society which is not about short-term profiteering (economically and socially), but about leveraging leadership to tackle the big issues relating to, economic growth, sustainable business and communities?

The Growth Through Leadership campaign provides a unique opportunity to drive awareness of current issues and promote positive change in leadership for impactful growth. It is not only productivity gains that can be realised with improved leadership and people management skills, but through effective knowledge exchange, such as peer-to-peer mentoring, this can also support substantive positive change throughout the business for all employees. If responsible leadership is going to deliver on its promises we need learn from our past and reimagine the future by ensuring responsible leadership is not a standalone issue, but interconnected to the chain of political, social and economic change.

Professor Kiran Trehan
University of Birmingham