Responsible Leadership: Ubuntu-I am because you are

AWIB February 14 event held at the newly opened Hayat Regency Hotel and the evening was all about responsible leadership. Compared to other theories of leadership, responsible leadership concept is fairly young, but it seems it may be very popular if attendance is any indication. As it was valentines’ day, AWiB bought 100 roses for 3000 birr to host young volunteers of the Yellow Movement from Addis Abeba University, to hand out roses to attendees. The Yellow Movement’s Yellow valentine is a fundraising initiative to raise funds for sanitary pad supplies to students that cannot afford them in Addis Abeba University and AWiB as a responsible leader stands in solidarity with that cause.

The session was facilitated by 2019 AWIB President Sewit Haileselasse, who kicked off the evening by inviting Tewodros Tadesse Araya, CEO Center for African Leadership to shade some light into the topic at hand. Tewodros explained how responsible leadership came about to be an emerging topic in recent years given the traditional pillars of leadership (leader-follower-vision) missing out one main component, the stakeholder. Traditionally, he said, leadership has been about the relationship between those who lead and those who chose to follow. Charismatic, Authentic, transformative, spiritual, ethical, servant, and so on were the qualities said to be of a real leader.

Tewodros also underlined that all these qualities were all about the individual- YOU. But life is not about you the leader only. As a leader your purpose is making others suffer or has a negative impact on someone near or in a faraway place, then the question of responsibility comes in. By giving examples of the financial crisis in recent years and what is happening in Syria and Yemen today, Tewodros highlighted the role of rational decision and ethical standards play in holding a leader accountable to be responsible for his/her actions.

The current free-market model is increasingly ambiguous and paradoxical. At the same time as having produced more wealth and periods of unprecedented growth, it pollutes, excludes, and often encourages domination and social injustice. It promotes a desperate race that no longer has any visible purpose, or raison d’être beyond the race itself (European Foundation of Management Development-The Globally Responsible Leader, Call for Action).

“Being responsible leadership starts within your working environment, if you bully your subordinate, she will go out and bully others. What we do as a leader has consequences, directly and indirectly, affecting many people. Do you know 85% of employees quit their job because of their supervisors? Or that, in recent years the number of people choosing to work from home has been increasing in the US and Europe. So are you a responsible leader? Do we hold our self to a higher standard and question our impact at all levels?” He added “responsible leadership is not foreign to African’s. It’s not something which came from the west. At the core of responsible leadership is the value we hold dear in Africa. Ubuntu-I am because you are”, added Tewodros.

Our next presenter was the amazing Hikmet Abdella, General Manager of MiHome and AWiB member and partner.  Hikmet started by asking, what is a business for you? She had the following to say from her personal experience first as a student and then a successful business owner.  In school during the time where the word stakeholder did not yet come to exist, the business objective was though as to be maximizing profit. In 2002, when Hikment wanted to do her MA thesis on corporate governance in Africa and more specifically in Ethiopia, her professor asked “Is Africa Corporate? Moreover Is Ethiopia Corporate?  And how do we came about to embrace Corporate Social responsibility (CSR) a western coined concept started by Fortune 500 companies to have a PR stunt to paint the companies in positive light.

So what does CSR Mean?

Two examples were given by Hikmet to probe the audience to investigate their understanding of CSR and its relation to Responsible Leadership. The examples were:

In 1932, mark and spencer introduced food for all employees after a manager on his daily scheduled round saw a woman faint. When he asked what was wrong, he was told that as her husband being unemployed, there was not enough food to feed everyone at home. Thus, she choosing to feed her children first had nothing to eat the whole day. Upon hearing this case, the management decided to start the employee meal initiative, although had not in detail considered the budget consequence as they had many employees working for the company. So is this in your eyes Responsible leadership? Is a corporate being socially responsible?

On the other hand, we all have heard about the 2016 Garment factory accident in Bangladesh which claimed the lives of 1500 workers. The building, according to the media was reported as being below standards and thus the reason for the collapse. Not only lives were lost but thousands who depended on those who died were affected by this accident. However, the owner of the building was given a certificate by the government saying the building was fit to be used after the accident happened. Is this responsible leadership? And where is the corporate social responsibility?

“A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world”
Jeffry Sachs

Over the years, many CSR definitions have been developed but seem difficult to come up with a common one as different interests play in the way we see and understand CSR.  For business, CSR is about showing the good side of the business to buy goodwill from everyone and especially from the surrounding community the business operates in. For activists, it is all about uncovering the negative aspects of only profit motivated businesses on the environment and the people all over the world. For a government, it might be a regulatory mechanism to make sure businesses give back to the community and operate in an ethical way.

In Ethiopia’s case, Hikmet argues, given the question of do corporate exist, CSR or Responsible Leadership is an area where students need to really do researches to have case studies to refer to. Moreover, the legal framework needs to be developed in a way to accommodate all stakeholders giving clear demarcations to who is what. In the meantime, as SMSIs happen to be the leading industry employing thousands, the concept of CSR makes sense to be applied there. Not only should we look into how leaders are responsible for those working for them or under them, but also everyone should be concerned to look into the impact of SMSIs in the community they exist in. The government should be concerned when an SMSI closes and asked to return its license. After all, it is terminating the income generating means of several employees and their dependents.

Thus wouldn’t CSR make a lot of sense in SMSIs in Ethiopia?

While concluding her presentation on the topic, Hikmet asked the audience to look within themselves and ask “Am I the kind of leader I will follow?” for which a lot of chuckle replies were heard. But then again, it’s also difficult to say Businesses exist to maximize profit or that they exist to serve the environment/people. For which, the presenter again stresses the need for a defined legal framework to address the issue.

Q & A session

The questions from the audience mainly revolved around three main points

  1. What exactly do we mean by CSR in relation to companies accountability to their own employees and to the community they operate in? is there any way to measure CSR? Does it not already exist within our own indigenous cultures and traditions?
  2. Who is the responsible leader? What do they look like?
  3. What is the role Gender plays when it comes to responsible leadership?

Tewodros and Hikmet pointed out that, to have a common agreed upon definition of CSR in Ethiopia, there should be a local discourse resulting in the legal framework to define CSR on our terms. After all, we are the owners of the Gedda system and many other indigenous leadership cultures which we can scale upon. To measure CSR, Hikmet advised the audience to look into the social, economic and environmental impact business has on the world at large. Adding, with a smile- a responsible leader looks like me which, was the audience supported by clapping.

On a serious note, both Tewodros and Hikmet underlined the question of who is the responsible leader starts with self-examination. Are we one? And then which value system are we using to select and recognize some to be a responsible leader? This by itself needs to be researched to have common ground all can agree on to evaluate someone. But for sure, there are several responsible leaders in our family, community and workplace. The question is, what are the common grounds we evaluate them on and identify to publicly recognize and celebrate them. One example given by Hikmet was AWiB’s Women of Excellence (WOE) celebration in which for the past 7 years, AWIB has asked the public to nominate women responsible leaders to be recognized and celebrated.

“There is a price to pay for living up our values, do we want to pay that price?”
Tewodros Tadesse Araya

When it comes to the role gender plays, first the presenters agreed one needs to look at the number of women working /employed. The percentage of these women in leadership position comes next. When looking at the figures, Hikmet says, Ethiopia is a country of men. But, this does not mean changes are not happening. Gender has played a role in keeping women away from leadership positions, but women need to mentor and support younger women to bring them on board.

Till we are successful in legislating all stakeholders accountable for their actions in creating an enabling environment for women to be part of the contributing workforce, a participant strongly advocated for the women leaders in the room to invest in women under their supervision. This way, women leaders will be able to play their part in producing the next generation of qualified number of women who will claim leadership position because they are qualified rather than, as a PR stunt being promoted without qualifications by government or business owners.

“In all areas we are working, we need to start our journey of being responsible leaders and make sure if we are not around there is someone we mentored to take over what has been started. Being a responsible leader is tough. As Steve Jobs said, if you want everybody to like you start selling ice-cream, don’t be a leader”

Hikmet Abdella

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