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.

In the following, we present the state of the art of knowledge related to CSR and the role of leadership. We highlight some current developments on this topic and draw attention to similarities and differences in the three angles of the triple bottom line (TBL)—the environmental, societal, and business arenas. The field addresses complex and critical issues, such as human rights, environmental protection, equal opportunities for all, fair competition, and the interdependencies that occur between organizations and society (Quinn, 2008). Ongoing research reveals that a variety of strategies, alliances and partnerships, and approaches are being used around the globe. The literature also reveals that although the aspiration of many corporations to contribute to a better world is great, translating that aspiration into reality proves to be somewhat of a challenge.

Contributing Authors:

Alessia D’Amato is a former research associate at CCL. Prior to joining CCL, Alessia conducted extensive studies on organizational climate and related topics for a variety of public and private organizations, including Telecom Italia, the University of Padova, a section of the Italian Ministry of Justice, and the Kent Police in the United Kingdom. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Bologna, Italy.

Sybil Henderson is assistant dean of administration and budget and an accounting instructor at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, USA. She holds an MBA from The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, also in Durham, NC, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate, with a concentration in leadership studies, at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro, NC.

Sue Florence is a school improvement specialist for Orange County Schools in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she coordinates staff and professional development opportunities. She holds an M.Ed. from North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate, with a concentration in leadership studies, at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University.

Published: April 2009
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