Women in the Boardroom: Deborah Webster Interview | Shaping the Future of Ethical Leadership

7 min read

Nick Holder


Responsible leadership and ethical innovation are on everyone's lips these days. But when it comes to truly understanding and leading the charge in these areas, our guest this week, Deborah Webster, is someone who walks the walk, bringing a whole new level of expertise to the table. Deborah stands at the forefront of merging technology, ethics, and leadership, guiding the way towards responsible innovation. With an extensive background spanning psychology, business, AI, and blockchain, she champions ethical innovation and sustainable business practices globally.

What sets Deborah apart is her relentless drive to question the conventional and not just accept ‘the way things are’. This led her to identify looming issues in high-profile cases like Theranos, Greensill, and OneCoin.

The interview that follows explores the art of challenging the 'business as usual' mindset, gender diversity in leadership, the delicate balance between tech advancements and ethical standards and more. We're incredibly grateful to Deborah for joining us and sharing her words of wisdom. A rare opportunity to learn from one of the field's most insightful experts.

Head shot of Deborah Webster Deborah Webster
Deborah is a guiding force for ethical leadership and innovation and promoting tech for good. Her book, 'Better Than Your Behaviour - upgrading the leadership code for the tech age', champions leadership that prioritizes integrity and ethical decision-making. As Co-Founder of the Sustainability Leadership Forum, Deborah drives organizations to align with sustainable and ethical practices, emphasizing the urgency of addressing our planet's limits. Her role as a board director for the MBN NextGen Mentoring Programme showcases her dedication to nurturing future leaders and entrepreneurs with a focus on ethical and value-driven business practices. Deborah's extensive experience across continents informs her approach to advising on the development of businesses and technologies that ensure a responsible legacy for future generations.

As a woman who has achieved significant success in fields often dominated by men, what strategies have you found most effective in overcoming barriers to female leadership?

My journey in traditionally male-dominated arenas has taught me that leadership transcends gender. It’s about courage, vision and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Skill development has been my cornerstone—from honing my strategic thinking to mastering public speaking. Mentors have played a pivotal role, offering not just guidance but also championing my cause in spaces where my voice needed amplification. I’m not great when I encounter chauvinism, but I’m also equally not as good when I encounter someone who tells me, ‘But this is the way things are’. For me, tackling the status quo has been a more significant challenge than chauvinism, and genuine leadership is about impact, vision and fostering positive change, which go far beyond the constraints of gender.


How do you perceive the state of gender diversity in boardrooms and leadership positions and what changes would you like to see to enhance female representation?

The landscape of boardrooms and leadership positions often mirrors outdated stereotypes, sidelining capable women and ‘quiet men’ who may not fit the conventional leadership mould. The key to enriching gender diversity lies in reevaluating our leadership selection criteria—valuing competence and character (i.e. factors like courage and integrity) and a diverse set of other qualities over mere charisma. By broadening our perspective, we open doors not only to women but also to all individuals with valuable contributions, thus fostering more inclusive, innovative and sustainable decision-making that considers the present and the future for various strata of society.

Your work emphasises the balance between cutting-edge advancements in tech and ethical principles. Could you share how this balance influences your approach to boardroom discussions?

I’m known to be the left-field thinker, understanding nuances, impact, factoring human behaviour, the impact of technology and the creativity and curiosity to seek better ways of doing things – holding us to a higher standard. When it comes to technology specifically, ethical foresight must guide our innovations, whether developing, investing in or deploying them. The excitement of technological breakthroughs comes with a profound responsibility—to ensure that these advancements benefit humanity without compromising ethical standards or creating dystopian outcomes. We’re at a crossroads. There are many systems currently that need to be fixed. If we concretise this same modus operandi with technology, we accelerate and exacerbate the potential negative impact. It’s an exciting time because we have a unique moment in time when we can re-envision and rework how we do things. Done correctly, we can create systems where everyone wins. That may sound idealistic, but idealism grounded in realism and pragmatism is the path forward, reimagining our world where technology amplifies our shared values and aspirations.


Congratulations on your book ‘Better Than Your Behaviour – Upgrading the Leadership Code for the Tech Age.’ Given your strong advocacy for ethical leadership to drive positive change, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to emerging leaders to help them navigate the ethical complexities of our times?

Thank you! To the trailblazers setting their sights on uncharted territories, remember: your journey is as much about staying true to your convictions as it is about navigating the hurdles. Face scepticism with perseverance and kindness. Your leadership should blend humility and unwavering commitment to your vision. In a world riddled with ethical complexities, we need leaders who are not just visionary but are deeply rooted in their principles, ready to make a positive imprint on the world.

Your impressive academic background in psychology, business, AI, blockchain and ESG investing truly stands out. How do these diverse specialties shape the advice you give to boards?

My curiosity has driven my eclectic academic journey, and that same curiosity and nuanced perspective infuses my advice on boards and investment committees. Whether drawing on psychology to understand team dynamics or applying ethical principles to strategic decisions, this multidisciplinary approach enriches board and investment committee discussions. It’s about thinking beyond the bottom line and exploring innovative paths to success that are financially sustainable yet socially and environmentally responsible. This holistic view encourages creative solutions, leveraging the full spectrum of knowledge to navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Having identified potential issues in high-profile cases well ahead of the curve, such as Theranos, Greensill and OneCoin, what indicators do you focus on when evaluating the ethical standing and potential risks of new technologies or startups?

My methodology in assessing new ventures is anchored in discerning the truth, authenticity and integrity behind their glossy exteriors. It’s about peeling back the layers, scrutinising the consistency of their narrative, identifying markers that signify risks and guarding against the seduction of surface-level allure. This critical stance, albeit daunting, has been my compass in a sea of hype. By fostering a culture of rigorous evaluation and critical thinking, we can better navigate the ethical landscapes of innovation, ensuring that our advancements are not just ground-breaking but grounded in our collective values and the ventures we’re backing are built on substance, not pretty words, pixie dust and wishful thinking.


What advice would you give to women aspiring to reach the boardroom?

For women eyeing the boardroom, remember: your gender is not your narrative. Your unique strengths, insights and leadership qualities define your path. Cultivate a spirit of curiosity, embrace transparency and let your well-researched insights speak volumes. As you forge your path, be the leader who leads with courage and authenticity, making a difference through your actions and decisions. The boardroom needs not just women but people who are unapologetically themselves, ready to shape the future with integrity and vision.


Thank you once again to Deborah for your time and wisdom. We eagerly anticipate seeing your continued influence in driving positive change!

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