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What are the characteristics of a responsible leader?

by Arnold Smit: Head of Social Impact and Associate Professor in Business in Society at Stellenbosch Business School.
What does climate change have to do with achieving an MBA? Is this not for politicians, scientists, and activists to care about? And what about various conflicts raging in several parts of the world? Can a business really afford to be concerned about peace? And concerning the global economy, is it not more important than anything else for businesses to ensure that they do not end up second in the race for resources and being surpassed by competitors? Should MBA students not concern themselves more with knowing how to run a business for maximum profit instead of being distracted by issues that other people are more knowledgeable about? What will a responsible approach to these questions be like?

While answers to these questions might depend on the worldview and business philosophy of those who are being asked, Stellenbosch Business School’s position is certainly one of unequivocal commitment to the global sustainable development agenda within the context of South Africa and the African continent. We believe that no business can be separated from the conditions of the environmental, social and economic landscape within which it operates, let alone leaving these essential systems to other societal agents to care about. It, therefore, matters for us to emphasise that the long-term success of a business is intertwined with keeping global warming within the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, addressing the fractures in society and building a fair and inclusive global economy.

For us, responsible leadership represents the educational pathway toward ensuring a sustainable future. Responsible leaders are mindful of the interconnected nature of the economic, social and environmental systems that we are both a part of and dependent upon. Responsible leaders act as stewards and take care of the impact of their decisions and behaviours on society and the environment. As individuals, they exercise ethical courage and judgment, while in stakeholder settings, they collaborate with others in developing resilient communities and responsible organisations in pursuit of a just and sustainable future.

Managing international organisations responsibly

While responsible leadership is a defining attribute of all USB’s management education, the MBA in Managing International Organisations (MIO) prioritises global governance and sustainable development in ways that are not within the scope of other programmes. In the MIO, we connect with the growing strategic relevance of global actors and multilateral initiatives committed to collaboration for a better world. Not only do we attend to the United Nations and its variety of agencies, but we also engage with the work of development finance institutions and other non-state actors working on various sustainable development priorities. In the MBA MIO, responsible leadership attains an explicit global meaning, recognising that interconnected systemic global challenges require multistakeholder collaboration among state and non-state actors.

Students in the MBA MIO stream take three unique modules, namely, International Organisations Leadership, Diplomacy in Complex Systems and Finance for Development. Whilst the first addresses the meaning, scope, application, opportunities and challenges in governing and leading international organisations, the second is about understanding the complexities and processes inherent to the conflicting interests of different actors in competing environments. The third module equips students with the skills required to identify and analyse international sources of financing for development and how they may optimally contribute to the development process, taking into account the collaboration between different role players from various sectors to make the funding and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) possible.

Whereas it might be thought that students in the MIO stream will mostly be from existing development organisations, we have thus far discovered that the majority are from the corporate sector. While some certainly want to pursue a post-MBA career in the international development arena, most actually just want to be better leaders at the interface between their existing companies and the multitude of state and non-state stakeholders they regularly engage with. While there might be a benefit in having achieved an MBA in Managing International Organisations, the purpose of most is actually to be better skilled in leading their companies to be more responsive and responsible in the face of today’s sustainable development imperatives.

The opportunity to do something meaningful

While I have been leading the MBA MIO stream at USB for the last three years, I had the privilege of interviewing several students prior to and after the completion of the programme. Prior to entering the MIO, students spoke to me about their need for doing something meaningful that will add value to their lives beyond the scope of business as usual. Some shared the longing for eventually being able to work for an international organisation. Some considered the programme to become better at upping their companies’ ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance. Naturally, I would remain curious about whether they would remain satisfied with having chosen the MIO. While not having asked everyone the question, I mostly heard that taking this step was for them a most satisfying and meaningful learning experience.

Useful resources:
Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited Stellenbosch Business School offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership.
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