Corporations around the world are struggling with a new role, which is to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the next generations to meet their own needs. Organizations are being called upon to take responsibility for the ways their operations impact societies and the natural environment. They are also being asked to apply sustainability principles to the ways in which they conduct their business. Sustainability refers to an organization’s activities, typically considered voluntary, that demonstrate the inclusion of social and environmental concerns in business operations and in interactions with stakeholders (van Marrewijk & Verre, 2003).

It is no longer acceptable for a corporation to experience economic prosperity in isolation from those agents impacted by its actions. A firm must now focus its attention on both increasing its bottom line and being a good corporate citizen. Keeping abreast of global trends and remaining committed to financial obligations to deliver both private and public benefits have forced organizations to reshape their frameworks, rules, and business models. To understand and enhance current efforts, the most socially responsible organizations continue to revise their short- and long-term agendas, to stay ahead of rapidly changing challenges.

In addition, a stark and complex shift has occurred in how organizations must understand themselves in relation to a wide variety of both local and global stakeholders. The quality of relationships that a company has with its employees and other key stakeholders—such as customers, investors, suppliers, public and governmental officials, activists, and communities—is crucial to its success, as is its ability to respond to competitive conditions and corporate social responsibility (CSR). These major transformations require national and global companies to approach their business in terms of sustainable development, and both individual and organizational leadership plays a major role in this change. Organizations have developed a variety of strategies for dealing with this intersection of societal needs, the natural environment, and corresponding business imperatives.

Organizations can also be considered on a developmental continuum with respect to how deeply and how well they are integrating social responsibility approaches into both strategy and daily operations worldwide. At one end of the continuum are organizations that do not acknowledge any responsibility to society and the environment. And on the other end of the continuum are those organizations that view their operations as having a significant impact as well as reliance on society at the economic, social, and ecological levels, thus resulting in a sense of responsibility beyond the traditional boundaries of the organization. Most organizations can be placed somewhere in between.

Corporate responsibility or sustainability is therefore a prominent feature of the business and society literature, addressing topics of business ethics, corporate social performance, global corporate citizenship, and stakeholder management. Management education can be an important source of new ideas about shifting toward an integrated rather than fractured knowledge economy, but this means also that the role and meaning of socially responsible leadership needs to be updated. Much further research is needed to create a clearer understanding of what is required, both in leadership itself and in the field of leadership development.

Published: April 2009

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