What we owe to each other: sustaining business through ethical and responsible practice in leaders of rural SMEs: A grounded theory

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (not awarded by UHI)

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This thesis presents research carried out in the field of responsible leadership in small to medium enterprises in rural Moray. According to the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) small and medium enterprises (SMEs) comprise around 99% of all businesses in the world and contribute around 40% of national incomes in developing countries. They therefore have a huge influence in the world economy and the lives of those impacted by it. The United Nations suggests that these SMEs along with all other businesses should act responsibly and ethically to support sustainability and help solve many of the world’s key challenges.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Moray has a responsibility for developing responsible leaders in rural Moray and beyond with leadership and management development courses that address national and international benchmarks for sustainability. However, concepts relating to ethics and responsibility have been met with scepticism by SME leaders participating in such courses in Moray.
Archie Carroll and Niklas Egels-Zandén both carried out reviews of the concepts and terminology surrounding the subjects of corporate social responsibility, including ethics and responsibility. They found the subject to be conceptually vast, contextually complex and with broad definitions that were underdeveloped. For leaders trying to navigate a constantly evolving business world that increasingly demands a responsible approach to leadership and organisational management, this presents challenges. Resonating with the situation in Moray, this called for further research to provide clarity in the context of leaders in rural Moray in order to develop more meaningful and impactful leadership courses.
The aim of this research therefore was to enter the world of Moray’s rural SMEs leaders, as a humble learner, listening to their thoughts in relation to ethics and responsibility in their roles and what it means as they practice leadership, so that a theory may be constructed to support meaningful responsible leadership development, and to expand existing knowledge so that others may benefit.
This aim was addressed through the following objectives:

1. By interacting with Moray’s SME leaders, explore their interpretations of ethics and responsibility through their leadership roles, constructing a substantive grounded theory of ethics and responsibility in leadership practice.
2. Explore existing literature in order to develop an understanding of how the newly constructed theory contributes to existing knowledge and how this supports responsible leadership development and practice.
3. Develop recommendations for responsible leadership practice in rural SMEs, while contributing to knowledge in a wider context relating to responsibility and SME leadership behaviour, as well as identifying areas for future research.

A constructivist grounded theory approach was deployed, underpinned by symbolic interactionism using data co-constructed with 17 leaders from a heterogeneous sample of leaders in Moray using in-depth semi-structured interviews. Theoretical sufficiency was achieved through a process of abductive reasoning, theoretical sampling and extensive use of memos. This resulted in the construction of the theory of What we owe to each other: sustaining business through ethical and responsible practice, a basic social process involving sustaining business through fulfilling obligations, cultivating supportive relationships and an awareness of the greater good. This basic social process is underpinned by the social psychological process of awareness of principles and values developed through reason and judgement (about right and wrong), learned through experience and observation.
In terms of contribution and originality, a key feature of this theory is the presence of context. In this case Moray’s rural context and identity influences every aspect of What we owe to each other: sustaining business through ethical and responsible practice creating contextual nuance that is crucial knowledge in the development of meaningful leadership and management courses. The theory constructed is both useful as a responsible leadership framework in its own right, but also integrates with existing, more generic theories, such as Bass and Avolio’s (1994) full range model of transformational leadership, offering detailed contextual nuance for each aspect of the full range model, in relation to rural SME leadership. For those interested in influencing the behaviour of leaders in relation to responsibility and ethics, for example the United Nations Global Compact and the Scottish Government, attention to context is crucial for developing messages that are meaningful to their receivers. The theory constructed in this thesis offers a basis with which to develop and deliver meaningful policy and guidance to SME leaders in a rural context.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
Award date2 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2023


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