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The Importance of Social Leadership in the Corporate World

7 October 2015 at 11:19 am
Ellie Cooper
In order to work in a complex environment and bring about change, leadership demands that we learn to work more authentically to create more purposeful enterprises that benefit individuals, organisations and society at large, writes the Director of Social Leadership Australia, Geoff Aigner.

Ellie Cooper | 7 October 2015 at 11:19 am


The Importance of Social Leadership in the Corporate World
7 October 2015 at 11:19 am

In order to work in a complex environment and bring about change, leadership demands that we learn to work more authentically to create more purposeful enterprises that benefit individuals, organisations and society at large, writes the Director of Social Leadership Australia, Geoff Aigner.  

In our work at Social Leadership Australia our core belief is that good leadership is about having a social impact and ultimately about creating a better world. This is true regardless of the sector we may work in – for profit, government or Not for Profit.

Many of the individuals and corporations we have worked with are genuinely asking themselves the big questions, “Can we do more than think about profits? And if we didn’t just think about money could we (counterintuitively) be more profitable?”

Purpose is the new competitive advantage

Many companies have long practiced some form of corporate social and environmental responsibility (CSR) with the broad goal, simply, of contributing to the well-being of the communities and society they affect and on which they depend. This development comes from a good place. In an increasingly competitive and connected world, businesses struggle if they are devoid of a clear purpose beyond increasing shareholder wealth.

But it’s more than looking like we are doing the right thing because that is unsustainable when not directly linked to the broader organisation’s goals and function. There is an opportunity to ask more meaningful questions:

-How do we engage with people’s discretionary effort?

-How do we ensure we act ethically?

-How do we create an attractive employment brand?

The answers to these questions come from a clarity of purpose which links organisations with the world as well as the hearts and minds of their employees.

Which is what makes the practice of CSR problematic. You can’t relegate this to one department; it needs to be part of everyone’s job. How about if we stop thinking about CSR and start thinking about how to live a meaningful life in an organisation which really engages with the world and takes responsibility for its potential to use its power well? It can be done.

The Importance of Social Leadership

Social leadership involves the purposeful use of collective wisdom, awareness, creativity and human skill to face and collectively solve difficult problems, to adapt a system and unlock unseen potential.

So whatever your role in leadership, there are some core social leadership practices and principles which help individuals and organisations stand out from the pack and deliver meaningful results to both the organisation and the humans within it (because we are much more than employees!). Social leadership builds the awareness and ability to:

1. Clarify and deliver on a unity of shared personal, business and community purpose. If you do not understand why you exist your future is limited. As individuals, without a connection to purpose we can too easily get side-tracked, confused and lose our effectiveness. Working with purpose will transform your connection with people and your leadership capability. Organisations without a compelling shared purpose foster factions, silos, ‘pet projects’ and dysfunction. Worst of all, they become increasingly irrelevant to customers, to stakeholders and to communities.

2. Tackle complex challenges. Social leadership equips people with a new way of working and thinking about complex organisational and systemic challenges because it foregrounds the inherent “social” nature of change. Real change is never just technical and operational. It is about people with different attitudes, values, assumptions and skills finding a way to work together rather than running roughshod over each other.  

3. Work with authority and courage. Leading change requires leadership with the expertise, skills and authority to make it happen, but most importantly of all the courage to ‘do the right thing’ with the power we have. When we can own and see our power it is the first step in taking responsibility for our system and those around us.

4. Create a safe holding environment. It will not be business as usual, it will require that staff at all levels are allowed , encouraged and feel safe to challenge the status quo, take risks and work with others they normally wouldn’t. Unfortunately, we often think of the “change” rather than the context (holding environment) required for the change. The later is much more important and is always why change initiatives and leadership fails.

5. Mobilise diverse groups of people. Social leadership develops self-aware change agents who can work across difference and towards a shared purpose. This requires an ability and interest in working with a diversity of functions, sectors, values, gender, culture, age and experience. We can’t innovate if we continue to do business with people just like us.

6. Create an environment where other leaders, not followers, are cultivated. Social leadership allows greater authority and leadership from all levels. When fostered throughout an organisation social leadership brings a degree of fairness, kindness and respect for others and aligns staff, customers and stakeholders with the values and actions of the organisation.

Social leadership is based on the belief that to succeed, we must see ourselves as part of our communities and workplaces, not above them.  Real change is always about people. It needs to carry some of our higher dreams: that together we can make both our organisations and the world a better place. And as a side benefit allow us to pursue a life of meaning.

About the author: Geoff Aigner is the Director of Social Leadership Australia.  Aigner is an author, educator, consultant and facilitator who has a rare combination of hands-on experience in senior leadership roles and a deep understanding of change and leadership theory and practice.  As Director of SLA, he is responsible for providing strategic direction for the centre in its mission to create better leadership for a better Australia. Further alumni case studies are available on the SLA website.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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