As I prepare to finish my post-graduate studies in corporate governance, responsibility and international business ethics later this month, I have been reflecting on leadership. During each module, studying business cases on corruption, collapses and collaborations, it became clearer to me that the concept of good leadership is simply non-negotiable. For our business community, society at large and environment to mutually thrive, we require the right leaders exhibiting the right leadership behaviours.

In the Handbook of Virtue Ethics, the business ethicist Wim Vandekerckhove develops Aristotle’s theory on the role of ‘virtue’ and ‘success’. Vandekerckhove’s 2013 journal argues that, given the impact organisations have on our lives, business and society need people of good character to create success across society in all its varied manifestations.

In business, virtues - such as respect, honesty, responsibility and consideration – must be modeled. They require daily proactive, positive examples, exhibited at the top, if they are to shape a credible and lasting organisational culture. More than codes of conduct and compliance, moral character in leadership can shape and inspire an organisation’s values.

Who exemplifies good leadership?

When I think of what attributes make a good leader, there are cues from real-life examples of leading women and men across our globalised world. These people are change-agents in their own unique ways and they inspire across ages and races. No doubt one springs to your own mind as you read this.

A good business leader that inspires me daily is Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, who I follow on Twitter and LinkedIn, and around whose attributes this article is written.

What makes a good leader?

  • A champion of all people: Encourages and celebrates employees & collaborators. Actively supports local communities. Acknowledges good leadership in others.
  •  A positive platform: Uses their influential position to unite others, via social media and in person.
  •  A values-centric mindset: Aligns ethical virtues with their organisation, to create a positive ‘brand’ culture that transcends regional operations.
  •   A long-term thinker: Breaks away from the mainstream to chart a course for long-term value creation. Polman orchestrated a change to Unilever’s dominant Anglo-American based shareholder value to a model that serves long-term multi-stakeholders.
  •  An advocate for change: Sees their business as a force for good. Polman plays an integral role driving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, established in 2015. Unilever has adopted a number of the Global Goals, embedding these into their CSR strategy. Such is the commercial impact that Unilever’s green brands are growing nearly 50% faster than the rest of the business portfolio.

A key ingredient to this leadership style is this: ethical virtues. Since becoming the CEO of Unilever in 2009, Polman has successfully modeled his virtues in his leadership style and decisions. He has created an executive board which actively demonstrates shared principles, embedding ‘respect’, ‘compassion’, ‘commitment’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘loyalty’ into the Unilever culture. What is remarkable about this achievement is that it is unconventional for a publicly listed company, and one that spans Africa, the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, with a group annual turnover in excess of €50billion. Given the need to navigate such differing cultures and the powerful stakeholders behind such scale, this is no mean feat.

This style of leadership is in total contrast with the report findings on the Carillion collapse case – described by some as the UK’s equivalent of the Enron collapse. The executive leadership at Carillion was described by Members of Parliament from two Parliamentary Select Committees, as one of ”greed”, “negligence” and “hubris”. Clearly, Unilever and Carillion are organisations at different ends of the leadership spectrum.

Developing a leadership style

For readers interested in the subject of transformational change and the role of leadership, I recommend this paper by the Institute of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cambridge (cisl), and this FT interview with Paul Polman, which gives an insight into the man behind the leader.

As CR & Sustainability professionals we can lead at every level. We can inspire as well as invite our colleagues and collaborators to regularly ask of themselves: “What am I doing for my Company, Community, and Country?” The late American author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Whether working as a consultant or an employee, I take daily inspiration from a leadership pool across sectors and society, and will continue to bring value to every project and role. Sharing Polman’s pledge via his Twitter bio, I too will use “business as a force for good”. I’ll embody “purpose, passion, [and a] positive attitude.”  Will you join me?


Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated. 


About the Author

Bella Stephens-Ikpasaja is a communications strategy consultant working with clients to develop and improve stakeholder services. Bella recently delivered a relaunch strategy for the UK Green Building Council’s Sustainability Learning programmes. Prior to that she built over 10 years’ industry-wide experience in the Advertising and Marketing Services industry, developing client relationships for award-winning UK and global agencies. Bella has broad sector experience including FMCG, Financial Services, Government, Healthcare, and Transport. A member of the ICRS and IEMA, Bella is an advocate of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.