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  • Writer's pictureKen Phillips

Responsible Leadership: Character, Values, and Caring


In a rapidly evolving global landscape, the demand for responsible leadership has never been greater. "Make a Better World" delves into the critical elements of character, values, and caring, which form the bedrock of effective leadership. This installment of our "Three Minutes for Insights" series focuses on these foundational traits, aiming to inspire current and future leaders to cultivate a leadership style that is both effective and ethically sound.

Insight from the Book Leadership is more than just achieving goals and leading teams; it's who you are, embodying principles that foster trust, respect, and integrity within an organization. Here are three core elements of responsible leadership detailed in the book:


At the heart of responsible leadership lies a strong character. As Plato said, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” Integrity, honesty, and ethical behavior are the hallmarks of a good leader. Leaders with strong character are consistent in their actions and decisions, aligning them with ethical standards that respect and advance the collective good. In his workshops, Ken often asks participants to reflect on the leadership values of figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Lech Walesa. Their leadership was defined by their character, aiming for the good of society, in stark contrast to the lack of character in those leaders who mistreat workers and imperil society. The Oxford English Dictionary defines character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual for the good of society.” And remember that it is not you who defines your character; it is how others define it based on their experience with you.

Values: The important question is the direction that values move the individual – for the overall good of society or for selfish benefits, the power to promote the common good or for power to benefit a privileged segment of society. A leader's values demonstrate how they navigate the complex landscape of modern leadership. These values should ensure that the leader’s personal behavior and every action and decision contribute positively to the team, the organization, and society. In the Boston subway, Ken frequently sees posters inviting mid-level executives to attend a leading university’s “High Level Course in All the Leadership You Need.” Unfortunately, these courses often focus solely on skills and subjects, neglecting the importance of character and values.

Caring: Beyond and within their professional responsibilities, effective leaders exhibit a genuine concern for the well-being of their team members and others. This aspect of leadership has elements of parental care, where the leader nurtures, mentors, and supports individuals, helping them grow and succeed. Caring leaders recognize the strengths and potential of their team members, providing guidance and opportunities for development while fostering an environment where everyone feels valued and motivated. An important way to demonstrate caring is to move from the traditional method of Monitoring and Evaluating (M&E) an employee’s performance (like having a finger wagging in your face) to the more effective approach of Monitoring and Learning (M&L) which produces less conflict and bad feelings and more appreciation for the helping process and greater commitment to improving in the future (like seeing a smile and nurturing attitude). Of course,  a mentoring approach includes discussion of things that may not be going well, but it's done in a much more caring way which generates more buy-in. And what is evaluation but a process to learn and improve? So let's call it mentoring and learning to do better. 

Implementing Responsible Leadership

Implementing these elements requires more than understanding; it demands action. Leaders should regularly reflect on their own behavior and remember that it is others in society that will define their character and values as demonstrated. Feedback is crucial – how others respond, especially when you are not looking, as it is others who define your character, values, and caring. Character is the basis, values are the demonstration, and caring is the result of responsible leadership.

Ashoka: An Example of Values-Based Leadership

Ashoka, an organization committed to social entrepreneurship, provides an excellent example of values-based leadership. This organization chooses participants for its highly selective fellowship program on the basis of five criteria: their innovative idea, creativity, entrepreneurial quality, social impact of the idea, and ethics. Ashoka believes that ethical fiber based on values and responsibility makes a person trustworthy. Without ethics, a person does not operate within a value system and is unpredictable and unreliable – simply untrustworthy. In his workshops, Ken often asks participants to focus on the leadership values of Ashoka and figures in history, literature, and family who made positive impacts on society to form their view of desired leadership characteristics. People who believe in responsible leadership understand what “Leadership for what” is all about.

Historical Perspectives on Leadership

The Prince, written by Niccolò Machiavelli in the 16th century, presents characteristics of leaders that are manipulative and designed to achieve personal objectives rather than social benefit. Machiavelli's ideas highlight the difference between leadership for personal gain and leadership for societal good. Similarly, the Great Man Theory by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s posits that history is shaped by "great men" with born talents and skills. While some of these leaders have been good or bad depending on their personal values and character, the English historian Lord John Acton famously noted, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Today, the Acton Institute articulates a vision of leadership and society that is both free and virtuous, aimed at human flourishing.

Building Blocks for a Better World

Ken's experiences in leading seminars and sessions, in Washington, DC, Kyiv, Ukraine, and many other cities, highlight the importance of understanding the three core elements of responsible leadership. With so much current news about worker dissatisfaction, political strife, corruption, violence, regional wars, and other conflicts, the question has to be “What are our leaders doing? What are their values?”  Discussions with young people, nonprofit leaders, and others throughout society need to emphasize values in leadership training because the finest words and charismatic image may lead nowhere or in the wrong direction. By focusing on character, values, and caring, leaders create an impact that transcends organizational goals and contributes to a better world.


As Ken reflects on his experiences shaped by family, faith, and professional roles, he is reminded of the profound impact responsible leadership can have.Take advantage of a 30% discount on all paperback books available on our website. Don’t forget to share and repost this blog to spread the knowledge!

 Stay tuned for more insights in upcoming posts, and visit for seven sessions, one for each week for the next seven weeks (or according to your own timetable) that can help you develop your leadership: 

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