What does Responsible Leadership mean in 2017? Good question.

The arrival of the New Year often brings with it an appetite for change. Out with the old, and in with the new.

It’s a time when many of us make New Year’s resolutions, promises to ourselves and to those around us, to make a change for good in the next 12 months.

It’s a time to reflect on the year just passed, make goals, and plan ahead. Many of us will make personal resolutions, to improve our health, to spend more time with family and friends, to quit bad habits – the list is endless. Personally, I’m on a mission to cut back on caffeine – no small feat for those of you who are familiar with my eight cup a day habit!

As I sit here, sipping a cup of caffeine-free green tea, I wonder what the world will look like another 12 months from now.

2016 certainly was a time of change – from saying goodbye to more than our fair share of legends from the world of music and film, to watching the Trump vs. Clinton battle unfold, and closer to home, the results of Brexit, the past year has been somewhat of an unsettling time.

It seems the world has had enough of status quo and is making a choice for change – for good or bad. Our world seems to be getting hotter and increasingly unstable, and not simply because of the ‘Cash for Ash’ scheme here in Northern Ireland. Whilst the controversy surrounding the RHI Scheme is close to home and most definitely creating major waves in our immediate political sphere, the world is now so intrinsically linked and interconnected that things like Brexit and the US elections impact on everyone, no matter where you live or whatever size your organisation happens to be.

Arguably change is good, change is what keeps us moving forward, but change requires careful management and responsible leadership if it is to be successful.

So, what can business leaders do to make change positive, and successfully guide their ships through the unchartered waters that lie ahead in 2017? That’s a good question!

Seriously though, it is all about questions.

Albert Einstein once famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Whilst not all questions can be solved in five minutes, asking the right questions will certainly help with finding the best solutions. During an address to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education last May, Dean James Ryan stressed the importance of cultivating the art of asking good questions and outlined five truly essential questions that you should ask yourself and others regularly:

  • The first is a phrase often heard muttered by confused teenagers, “Wait, what?” At first glance, this may seem like a very simple wording, and possibly an admission that you weren’t really listening, but “Wait, what?” is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding. The ‘wait’ is also a good reminder that at times, it’s a good idea to slow down to make sure you truly understand what is being asked. The Harvard Dean stressed the importance of inquiry before advocacy. In terms of responsible leadership, this point is crucial – you must truly seek to understand an idea, and the implications of it, before you advocate for or against it. Anything less, is dangerous.
  • The second question on the Dean’s list is “I wonder”, which can be followed by “why” or “if”. Asking the simple questions of ‘I wonder why’ or ‘I wonder if’ are crucial to helping us stay curious about the world and helping us to improve situations and create a fairer society for all. For business leaders, asking ‘why’ underpins the concept of business improvement – good questions are often those that don’t so much as demand an answer but rather prove irresistible to answer.
  • The third question is “Couldn’t we at least…?” In an ever-divided society, this is the question that will help us get ‘unstuck’ and find compromise. It’s what enables us to get past disagreement to some consensus and find a way to move forward.
  • The fourth question is “How can I help?” At Business in the Community, our purpose is to challenge and support business to be a force for good. This question, lies at the heart of what we do – how can we better help our members be more responsible in 2017? And by asking this question themselves, our member companies can better understand how they can help, both within their own organisations, and in the wider community.
  • And finally, the fifth question that we should ask ourselves on a regular basis is “What truly matters?” This could be what matters to you personally, or in a business context; what matters to your organisation, or the local community around you? This is the question that forces you to the heart of issues and to the foundation of your own beliefs and convictions. The Harvard Professor suggested that this question could be added to, or be a substitute for, New Year’s resolutions.

Successful leaders don’t necessarily have all the answers. Successful leaders are simply those who are willing to invite open criticism and listen – really listen – to the answers. And to me, that’s what responsible leadership is all about – asking the right questions and importantly, seeking to understand the answers.

So in 2017, let’s utter the words “Wait, what?” more often and really seek to develop a better understanding of the issues we face. Let’s satisfy our curiosity with more “I wonder whys” and look to make changes for the better by considering the “I wonder ifs”. “Couldn’t we at least” vow to ask more of the right questions this year? Let’s make our homes, our workplaces, our communities and our world a better place by asking, “How can I help?” and really listening to the answers. And most importantly, let’s really question, “What truly matters?”, and make it count in 2017.