Responsible Leadership: What it Looks Like and How to Cultivate It

The world of business is changing constantly and most leaders recognize that business as usual is no longer possible. While it’s still not clear what the world that is emerging looks like, companies are being held more accountable and nudged towards more responsible leadership.

During the World Economic Forum annual meeting in January 2020, leaders gathered at the YPO Hub in Davos to discuss the topic of responsible leadership. Panel participants included moderator Andrew White, Associate Dean for Executive Education at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, António Simões, CEO, Global Private Banking at HSBC, Gina Badenoch, Founder OQS and Capaxia UK, and Belinda Parmar, Founder and CEO of The Empathy Business.

Responsible leadership is about making business decisions that take into account the interests of all stakeholders – shareholders, employees, clients, the environment, the community and future generations among others. It’s “about courage, empathy and having a clarity of purpose,” says Parmar. And yet, most business leaders are “not equipped emotionally to deal with that change,” says Simões.

Consultants, investment bankers and business school graduates are trained to be analytical and focused on maximizing shareholder value, but leaders are now expected to be more authentic in their interactions with customers, employees and society at large.

Here are some insights from the discussion into how leaders can change their behaviors and shift their roles to make a more human work environment.

Defining a sense of purpose

“People don’t want to be associated with companies that don’t have a true and authentic societal purpose, and companies that are not real and authentic about the way they deliver it,” says Simões.

When Simões became CEO of Global Private Banking at HSBC, he reflected on the company’s role, which needed to be more than “to just make rich people richer.”

In the midst of a restructuring that was causing a great deal of turnover, uncertainty and change within the company, he wanted a clear sense of purpose for everyone to rally around. “I believe that a longer term sustainable company is one that’s founded on purpose, where our employees are happy and we deliver good service for our clients,” he says.

Initially, given the lack of trust in the banking industry, he and his team focused on creating better client service and a great platform. The larger purpose became to inspire clients to make a positive change in the world so that the organization, employees and customers could all have a greater impact on the world.

Creating an empathic culture

Transforming a business into one that emotionally impacts its employees, clients and society doesn’t happen overnight. It requires stepping away from traditional business norms and opening up to emotions in the workplace. Empathy is critical to the process and to fostering an environment where employees feel valued and encouraged to contribute.

As a lobbyist for more empathy in the way tech companies design, lead and build their cultures, Parmar says that she looks for a company’s empathy deficits and strengths by measuring things like how many times a CEO interrupts people in a meeting and how many blind copies a company has per employee per week. Analyzing these types of daily interactions can lead to the self-reflection, self-criticism and openness to other’s opinions that can ultimately lead to cultural change.

“The day you think you’re responsible enough is the day you stop being responsible,” says Parmar. “It really is a work in progress.”

Empathy is a learned skill that all leaders can develop. It’s easy to get started with small changes such as switching from referring to employees as assets to people that can help embed empathy within the organization and have an impact at all levels.

“People underestimate their power of language,” Parmar says.

Embracing vulnerability

Creating meaningful cultural change takes a much deeper intervention than language however. Recognizing that employees have lives and struggles outside of the workplace is becoming increasingly important as leaders create a more human workplace. The expectation that employees can put in long hours only works when nothing’s going wrong at home.

Simões, who took six months off to care for his family during a child’s illness, says that leaders need to talk about their domestic struggles. The return to corporate life after an extended medical leave was both challenging and eye-opening for him. Still navigating the problems at home, he wanted to discuss the things that really mattered to him with his colleagues, but couldn’t. He understood he needed “to create an environment where the 6,000 people that work with me are able to share whatever is on their mind.”

Engaging in authentic dialogue not only connects employees to one another but also to their work. Employees who feel heard, appreciated and understood also feel empowered to deliver the change they want to see.

“Once you get people in that state of vulnerability and more emotion – not just empathy, but in a more emotional space – they start thinking about what’s relevant for them as people and therefore what they want to do rather than what they think clients want from us,” says Simões.

“People underestimate their power of language.”  – Belinda Parmar, Founder & CEO The Empathy Business

Connecting as human beings

Getting people out of their comfort zones, where they must learn to take risks without having everything under control, is a great way to help leaders and their employees become more vulnerable. “What we want to do is invite people to stop seeing and judging by sight – in seconds – what’s happening around them, and really open their heart and their intuition, and be present and connect as human beings,” says Badenoch.

When leaders are able to look beyond initial impressions or the titles they have in the workplace, they are able to connect with each other on a personal level. In turn, they become more present with each other, “more human, playful, curious, empathetic.” By tapping into their humanity, leaders can see and understand others better, appreciate individuality and difference, and create a thriving culture of togetherness and inclusivity.

“When organizations understand that when you get more into the empathy conversation and feel it and learn it, the result is you’re going to have better connections with people and that the other result is collaboration and then innovation,” says Badenoch.

Inspiring innovation

“We’re definitely in the journey where we’re getting to see vulnerability and risk and the unknown as a hub for innovation,” says Badenoch. The reality is leaders today must be agile in a world that is constantly changing and unknown, “willing to fall a thousand times and stand up again.”

Ultimately CEOs have to evolve to continue to grow, inspire employees, deliver tangible change and harness the power of empathy.

Companies that understand that authentic emotion, vulnerability and empathy are powerful tools for improving profits as well as engagement with all stakeholders are better poised to navigate the unknowns of the ever-changing business world. “We are in that stage where if we don’t do that, we’re staying behind,” says Badenoch.

Watch the full conversation here: 


YPO is the global leadership community of more than 29,000 chief executives in 130 countries who are driven by the belief that the world needs better leaders. Each of our members have achieved significant leadership success at a young age. Combined, they lead businesses and organizations contributing USD9 trillion in annual revenue. YPO members become better leaders and better people through peer learning and exceptional experiences in an inclusive community of open sharing and trust.