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Have we lost the case for responsible leadership?

No one wants to return to the crisis conditions the world faced three years ago but, as we learn to live with Covid, there is a danger that leaders might lose some of their appetite for change. I believe that would be a grave mistake; almost a form of wilful blindness on the part of senior leaders and HR directors.

The world has shifted, not just because of Covid-19, but because the disruption has had a domino effect changing work and personal lives for leaders and ‘followers’ alike

The disruption of the pandemic has elevated demands for new forms of responsible leadership to promote fairness and social justice; to assuage public fear about the geo-political situation; to tackle the environment, as well as minimise the fallout of a cost of living crisis. HR also has a critical role to play in brokering solutions for every workplace constituency.

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What does this mean for leaders?

More pressure has been placed on leaders by influential groups and communities, with those voices insisting leaders recognise the broader societal economic and political context in which their businesses operate. 

The more powerful they are, those voices are adamant that leaders must contribute to solving the challenges facing society today. 

The good news is that the experience of Covid showed the world that, released from normal operating conditions, many business leaders do care and can pivot their leadership styles. As one CEO told us in the CIPD Responsible Business in Crisis report series: “Covid was a people crisis”.

It prompted many to embrace a more empowering and empathetic people-centred leadership. Their success in this endeavour has raised expectations for the future. 

Some told us they found the experience of the last three years transformative. One CEO told us that he had learnt more in the first 18 months than he had learnt in the previous 10 years, that he had “taken his suit of armour off” and felt empowered to be humbler and more human.

Another CEO said of the impact of Black Lives Matter upon his leadership: “It caught me unawares. It’s opened my eyes and changed my thinking.”

It took the blinkers off for many directors, making clear that organisations are not islands in society. Responsible leaders came to the fore in their concern for people inside their businesses and communities.


What of HR?

HR also had ‘a good pandemic’, demonstrating credibility, influence, strategic thinking and leadership. HR directors described being catapulted into an arena where their functions commanded higher levels of respect. The pandemic has given non-HR leaders a glimpse of the complex nature of the people function.

Yet 2023 presents significant socioeconomic challenges for the HR profession, some of which were exacerbated by the employee experience during Covid and some of which are new developments. 

In many organisations HR is renegotiating the multiple psychological contracts within their workforces to ensure fairness and justice across divides, many of which were created during the pandemic. Who got to stay at home and who got ‘coughed on’ by being required to stay on the front line?

There is an urgent need to resolve multiple disputes around pay and reward for some of those front-line workers. HR is having to face into the paradox of responding to some individuals seeking fantastic, idiosyncratic deals to meet their personal preferences around work patterns, while at the same time seeing the rise in collective action from others. 

The continued debates over hybrid working are just manifestations of something much deeper happening in the employee/employer relationship. 

HR leaders will need to embody what Dave Ulrich has described as being paradox navigators and credible activists. Current issues HR face require business knowledge, strategic vision, brokering skills but also the benevolence to understand the varied experiences of employees during Covid and the impact that has had on their orientation to work itself. 

Some might argue that HR leaders will be judged far more by what they do over the next three years than by what they did during the pandemic. Tough times lie ahead.

So, with us learning to live alongside Covid-19, has the case for responsible leadership gone away? I think not. We are living in different but still disrupted and contested times and remain in the throes of a major transition. And such transition comes with opportunity, if we ask: ‘What is our part in all of this?’ 

Everyone has agency in an interconnected system. We have a choice: we can be cynics, critics and bystanders – or we can be activists, contributors and supporters in continuing the campaign for more benevolent and trustworthy businesses which was given real impetus during the pandemic. 


The full article of the above first appeared in the January/February 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.