Teaching the Essence of Responsible Leadership

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Wednesday, June 1, 2022
By Susie Chant
Photo by iStock/Igor Borisenko
A course at UniSA addresses all 17 Sustainable Development Goals to help students understand the roles they can play in solving global challenges.
  • The SDGs and the United Nations Global Compact provide a robust framework for helping students develop crucial skills such as ethical awareness, communication, and international perspective.
  • In UniSA’s Business and Society Course, students explore the ethics of businesses that cause harm to people and the planet.
  • Students discover that the SDGs can be achieved only through cooperation at the global, regional, national, and local levels.


To solve its biggest challenges, the world needs business schools to graduate responsible leaders who will prioritize sustainable business practices, no matter what industries they enter or what careers they pursue. With that in mind, we offer Business and Society, a first-year undergraduate course at the University of South Australia (UniSA) Business School in Adelaide.

The course’s primary objective is to develop our students’ sense of global responsibility through real-world exposure to issues such as human rights, sustainable business, social sustainability, human and ecological well-being, fair labor practices, and anti-corruption and anti-fraud practices. To provide students with this exposure, and to help them understand their role in solving global problems, we apply the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to every topic of the course.

We believe that the SDGs capture the essence of the qualities that will be expected of UniSA’s graduates throughout their careers. By mapping course content onto the SDGs, we hope to give students an explicit understanding of what constitutes responsible business behaviors.

17 Goals, 17 Approaches

At UniSA Business School, we work to equip students with six critical and transferrable skills—what we call “enterprise skills”—that will carry them throughout their careers. These skills, which our faculty identified in consultation with industry, include self-management, problem solving, teamwork, ethical awareness, communication, and international perspective.

Although the Business and Society course is designed to help students develop each of these enterprise skills, we give special attention to ethical awareness. We apply each SDG to the course’s content in the following ways:

Goal 1. No Poverty
End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

We teach students that human rights are universal, that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, and that businesses that protect human rights will experience continued growth. Students come to understand that businesses need to recognize their moral duties, not just their legal and commercial responsibilities.

Goal 2. Zero Hunger
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Students complete several reflective journal assignments. For instance, they go to websites such as Ecological Footprint to calculate their carbon footprints and consider how many Earths would be required to support human life if everyone lived like they did. They also explore how our food and agriculture systems need to be transformed to give all communities access to healthy foods, create livelihoods for small-scale producers and processors, and protect ecosystems to combat climate change. They learn to see that business is a critical partner in designing and delivering effective, scalable, and practical solutions to achieve zero hunger.

Goal 3. Good Health and Well-Being
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

We ask students to discuss the broader societal impact of different economic systems such as capitalism, socialism, and communism. From there, as they view the world through a business lens, students consider what is “fair” in society, whether social inequality is a problem, and, if it is, in what ways.

Goal 4. Quality Education
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Through promoting explicit awareness and understanding of the SDGs and the 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), we are contributing to the development of responsible business leaders who possess a lifelong learning mindset.

Goal 5. Gender Equality
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Students read business cases that highlight the ways that promoting social equality contributes to the establishment of more stable and just societies for all. We also demonstrate how, when businesses support gender equality, they are aligning their organizations with several of the UNGC principles, including protecting internationally proclaimed human rights (UNGC Principle 1), avoiding human rights abuses (Principle 2), and eliminating workplace discrimination (Principle 6).

We ask students to discuss the broader societal impact of different economic systems such as capitalism, socialism, and communism. They consider whether social inequality is a problem, and, if it is, in what ways.

Goal 6. Clean Water and Sanitation
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Students discuss the major challenges that water scarcity, pollution, climate change, and other problematic global trends in water consumption pose to businesses. Students learn that when companies identify and manage water-related business risks, they not only contribute to more sustainable management of shared freshwater resources, they also reduce operational costs and improve their image with consumers, investors, and communities.

Goal 7. Affordable and Clean Energy
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

Students learn how organizations can demonstrate leadership on climate change by joining the UNGC’s Caring for Climate initiative, the world’s largest effort for business leadership on climate change.

Goal 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth; full and productive employment; and decent work for all.

Students explore issues such as child labor, forced labor, hazardous workplaces, discrimination, and global supply chains that support unacceptable working conditions. They learn that companies need to uphold labor standards across their own operations and value chains not just because providing decent work opportunities is good for business and society, but because it also affords companies greater access to skilled talent and minimizes their reputational damage and legal liability.

Goal 9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.

Students gain an overview of how industry associations influence corporate sustainability through their vast global memberships, and how these connections can offer in-depth understanding of industry-specific trends. Later, in a postgraduate course called Entrepreneurship and Innovation, many of our students will explore the benefits of supporting the social good and promoting “inclusive and sustainable industrialization.”

Goal 10. Reduced Inequalities
Reduce inequality within and among countries.

Students also identify business’s impact, both positive and negative, on employees, workers, customers, and local communities. We link this discussion back to the “shareholder-versus-stakeholder” debate and the ways that social sustainability promotes human rights for various groups, including workers, women, children, and Indigenous peoples.

Goal 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

Students look into the “big” social and environmental sustainability issues (as set out by both the UNGC and the SDGs) and study the link between social sustainability and the positive functioning of human society and settlements, both at the individual and collective levels. We promote the view that an organization is expected to address issues related to individual and social well-being as part of its triple-bottom line.

Goal 12. Responsible Consumption and Production
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Throughout the course, students explore questions such as, “Is it right for businesses to externalize environmental harms on future generations or to accept human rights abuses in their supply chains? Is it right for them to use their power to influence government to make policies that specifically benefit their self-interests? Is it right that humanity is exterminating other living things at such a high rate that we could be witnessing the Earth’s sixth great extinction?”

We relate these questions back to the enterprise skill of ethical awareness, as well as to UniSA’s seven graduate qualities, which include a commitment “to ethical action and social responsibility as a professional and citizen.” Later, in our Entrepreneurship and Innovation course, we help students view sustainable consumption and production patterns through the lens of ethical consumers, so that they can better recognize entrepreneurial opportunities that exist in serving this audience.

Throughout the course, students explore questions such as, “Is it right for businesses to externalize environmental harms on future generations or to accept human rights abuses in their supply chains?”

Goal 13. Climate Action
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Students read the UNGC website—focusing on the Caring for Climate initiative—to note how organizations can make a lasting commitment to address climate change in areas such as reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and adopting responsible climate adaptation polices, as well as how governments can contribute by putting a price on carbon emissions.

Goal 14. Life Below Water
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

From their exploration of the UNGC, students discover that for businesses to be ecologically sustainable, they must also protect the Earth’s aquatic ecosystems.

Goal 15. Life on Land
Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; sustainably manage forests; combat desertification; halt and reverse land degradation; and halt biodiversity loss.

Students explore biodiversity loss, extinction debt, and the important role our ecosystems play in regulating the atmosphere, filtering water, and providing food. They come to understand how the actions of businesses contribute to broader phenomena such as climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation and the loss of fertile soil, and the loss of forests and habitats to maintain species.

We also look at events that have a negative impact on those ecosystems, such as fires—particularly when those fires are deliberately lit, as they have been in Indonesia and the Amazon to convert the land to pasture for grazing or farming. Students are especially affected by the idea that with enough people, chainsaws, bulldozers, and logging equipment, a single organization can flatten a forest.

Goal 16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development; provide access to justice for all; and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Students get an overview of how companies can engage with the UNGC on the three critical governance topics: anti-corruption, peace, and rule of law. We discuss how businesses can engage in these topics by integrating corporate sustainability principles into their operations and relationships, as well as supporting the development and implementation of international norms and standards related to governance.

In addition, we dedicate two discussions to the ethical challenges that Australia’s First Nations People have faced throughout history. These issues have parallels in many other parts of the world, and they have important implications not only for our discussions about ethics and social justice, but also for business activity. (We cover the same issues in another course I teach called Tourism and Indigenous Peoples.)

We want to ensure that our students contribute to achieving every SDG through responsible leadership.

Goal 17. Partnerships for the Goals
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

Ultimately, students learn that the world can realize the SDGs only through strong partnerships and cooperation at the global, regional, national, and local levels. These relationships must be built upon common principles and values and on a shared vision of placing people and the planet at the forefront. We ask students to consider how they can build networks with leaders who also support sustainable development and businesses that are signatories of the UNGC.

Reflections on Ethical Leadership

Every time I teach the course, I am pleased to uncover more resources provided by the UNGC. Moreover, I am constantly surprised by how strongly students engage directly with the SDGs.

For example, this semester, for one of their reflection assessments, we asked students to choose one of the 17 SDGs and conduct research on the ways a real organization had applied that goal. They then reflected on how they can take what they learned into their professional careers. Students were able to find businesses in a range of industries on Australia’s SDG site, especially the SDG Industry Matrix.

In its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the U.N. calls on all businesses “to apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges” and to “foster a dynamic and well-functioning business sector, while protecting labour rights and environmental and health standards.” Through Business and Society and its focus on every SDG, we hope to prepare students to help organizations, across all industries, heed the U.N.’s call. We want to ensure that they contribute to achieving every SDG through responsible leadership.

Susie Chant
Lecturer in Management, University of South Australia Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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