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What Is Responsible Leadership? Why Does It Matter?

The three main elements to responsible leadership.

Key points

  • A leader needs to be a person of good character to be responsible.
  • Possessing the right values is an essential element of responsible leadership.
  • Nothing matters if a leader doesn’t engage in responsible behaviors.

I was recently interviewed on the topic of “responsible leadership.” That is a term that is used a lot, but the exact meaning of responsible leadership isn’t always clear. I do, however, think a lot about the meaning of responsible leadership because it is the core of our mission at Claremont McKenna College: "To educate students for thoughtful and productive lives [the liberal arts part] and responsible leadership.”

When I think about responsible leadership, I believe it consists of multiple elements. The first is character. You can’t be a good, responsible leader unless you are a good (and responsible) person.

What Is Character?

To encapsulate character, I turn to virtue ethics and the writings of Aristotle. Take the cardinal virtues. Prudence is the first, and it is associated with wisdom and humility. Humility because a responsible leader doesn’t believe that she or he knows it all. They listen to the perspectives of other people and solicit their opinions (wisdom). Fortitude, or courage, is the virtue that keeps the leader on the right path and having the courage to do the right thing. Temperance, the third cardinal virtue, keeps the leader in check – not giving into passions (or greed) and being emotionally balanced. The final virtue, justice, is all about fairness and a responsible leader treats people fairly and never takes credit for others’ work or accomplishments.

Your Core Values

The second element of responsible leadership is having good, core values. Perhaps first and foremost is valuing human rights – having care and concern for others. Seeing the humanity in every person, including those who you may disagree with. Along with this is the value of freedom – allowing others to have a sense of autonomy. Valuing equality – treating people fairly (related to the virtue of justice), but also valuing equity, which is realizing that concessions need to be made for some people to gain equality. These values are all about being “other-oriented” – caring about the opportunities available to and the ultimate well-being of those you lead (in academia, this is about “follower-centric” approaches to leadership).

Engaging in Responsible Behavior

Being a person of good character, and possessing the right values, isn’t enough. You have to “walk the talk.” And, that means that a responsible leader engages in responsible behaviors. Responsible behaviors include being truthful and straightforward with followers. Showing appreciation for their efforts. Not satisfying your own needs at the expense of those you lead. And, working hard to become an even better leader.

In short, responsible leadership doesn’t come easy. It takes self-awareness, self-reflection, and a willingness to work hard to do the right thing and care for others who are partners in your leadership (leaders don’t do leadership – it’s a co-creation of leaders and followers working together).


Character and Leadership. The Oxford Character Project. UK Business Values Survey. 2022

Riggio, R.E., Zhu, W., Reina, C., & Maroosis, J. (2010). Virtue-based measurement of ethical leadership: The Leadership Virtues Questionnaire. Consulting Psychology Journal, 62(4), 235-250.

The Need for Temperance: On Organizational Leadership and Temperance. Scandinavian Journal for Leadership and Theology. 2015. Karl Inge Tangen.

Newstead, T., & Riggio, R.E. (Eds.). (2023). Virtues and leadership: Understanding and practicing good leadership. New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

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