Modeling Ethical Leadership and Behavior

Modeling Ethical Behavior

By Linda Fisher Thornton

As leaders, we are not working in isolation. What we do sets the tone for what employees do. Because we are leading them, they will tend to follow and learn from our choices. What kinds of choices do we need to make to ensure that employees make ethical choices in their daily work? What does it look like when we effectively model ethical leadership?

The Manifesto

“We model ethical leadership and behavior. We realize that we can only bring out the best in those we lead when we embrace continuous learning. We know that our role is to listen, learn and improve, serving as a role model for what ethical behavior looks like. We learn just as much as we teach. We listen deeply to others, not sharing our own thinking without regard to theirs. We model ethical leadership, with our thoughts, words and deeds in full alignment. We are open to learning and model the ethical behavior we ask of others.

The Leading in Context® Manifesto

Modeling Ethical Leadership and Behavior

How important is it to model ethical behavior? Think about the combined impact when everyone you lead follows your example. If your example is positive, then you get abundant ethical behavior. If your example is negative, then you get abundant unethical behavior.

It is simultaneously a burden and an opportunity for us as leaders to model ethical behavior. It is a burden in that we must work hard to ensure that we are modeling the highest ethics. It is an opportunity in that modeling ethical behavior brings out the best in us and those we lead.

A leader’s ethical shortcomings are magnified throughout the organization. However, consider that the same is true for ethical improvements. What could happen if you intentionally worked to improve the ethics of your day-to-day choices? The ripple effect that your improvement would generate would improve the ethics of many others. That’s the magnified impact of ethical modeling.

About Linda Fisher Thornton

In 2013, Linda was named one of the Global Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Linda’s new book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership is due out this fall.

Leading in Context provides clear tools for businesses of all sizes for implementing “ethical leadership future.”   For more information, visit


Should Trust Be Freely Offered or Conditionally Earned?

By Linda Fisher Thornton


Should We Trust Right Away (or Wait for People to Show That They Can be Trusted)?

When we meet someone new, should we trust them right away? Should we assume that they are trustworthy and give them the benefit of the doubt, or should we hold back until we are sure that they are worthy of our trust?

Each of these approaches has a powerful impact on the trust level within our organization. One has a powerful positive effect and the other has a powerful negative effect. Let’s explore the pitfalls of waiting for others to earn our trust, and the benefits of extending trust freely.

Pitfalls of Waiting for Others to Earn Our Trust

We erode trust by waiting for others to earn our trust. If we meet someone new and think “They have to earn my trust,” then we are intentionally withholding trust from them. We are automatically assuming the worst about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This “wait and see” way of thinking about trust can lead to a low trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we are wait for someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they won’t be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is untrustworthy. Will we be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate?
  2. If we are waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, how will they be able to tell that we are trustworthy? If we don’t use behaviors that extend trust, how can we expect them to trust us enough to extend trust?
  3. If each one of us is waiting to see if the other will earn trust, we will quickly descend into a stalemate, with neither one extending trust. It will be very difficult for us to work together successfully while stuck in this stalemate. We may even look for examples of the other person’s untrustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and miss the positive things that they do.

Benefits of Extending Trust

We can build trust by assuming that people will be trustworthy. If we meet someone new and choose to trust them right away, we are automatically assuming the best about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This type of “assuming positive intent” can lead to a high trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we expect someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they will be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is trustworthy. We will be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate.
  2. If we are not waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, we can demonstrate that we are trustworthy by extending trust to them. If we use behaviors that extend trust, we can expect them to more quickly trust us enough to extend trust in return.
  3. When one person extends trust, and the other reciprocates, it is easier to work together successfully. We may even look for examples of the other person’s trustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and overlook the small negative things that they do.

Trust is Relational – It Takes Two

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Extending trust or earning trust?

Trust in the workplace works best if we give people the benefit of the doubt. We must reach out and extend trust in order to receive it.

Stephen M. R. Covey says it well in his book The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is reciprocal – in other words, the more you trust others, the more you, yourself are trusted in return.”

Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything

When we withhold trust as a general rule (for no good reason), we are eroding trust.   When we assume the best and extend trust (for no good reason), we are building trust.  

Sometimes people will disappoint us when we extend trust. Most of the time, though, people will delight us with how well they do when we expect the best from them.

Related Posts:

5 Unethical Phrases: Low Trust

Trustworthy Business Behavior

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

How to Use the Leading in Context® Website

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

What is Creativity?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

What is Creativity?

In the leadership development world, creativity is currently getting a great deal of attention. But what is it? Can you learn it? Is it a skill? How do we lead in ways that encourage it?

When we explore the question “What is creativity?” from a thinking and learning point of view, an open and active mind is clearly required – one that can see new possibilities. But is there more to it than that? This post explores the variables that make up what we think of as “creativity.”

Many Definitions

Creativity is studied across a number of disciplines, and according to Wikipedia:

“Scholarly interest in creativity ranges widely…Creativity and creative acts are therefore studied across several disciplines - psychologycognitive scienceeducationphilosophy (particularly philosophy of science), technologytheologysociologylinguisticsbusiness studies, and economics. As a result, there are a multitude of definitions and approaches.”


Is it A Skill or a Mindset?

Can you learn “creativity” as a skill? According to John Maxwell in his book Thinking for a Change, creativity is not a single skill or attribute, but a mindset that embraces a broad array of different things including Ambiguity, Learning, Possibility, Connecting, Ideas, Options, Exploring Gaps and Inconsistencies, the Offbeat, and Failure.

In his book The Evolving Self; A Psychology for the Third Millennium, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reflects on the limits of reason and says “We must foster intuition to anticipate changes before they occur; empathy to understand that which cannot clearly be expressed; wisdom to see the connection between apparently unrelated events; and creativity to discover new ways of defining problems, new rules that will make it possible to adapt to the unexpected.”

Creativity, then, is as a way of thinking – a flexible, connecting mindset that helps us deal with a changing world, and keeps us nimble and adaptable.

How is it Different From Critical Thinking? 

 How does creative thinking relate to critical thinking? According to Sir Anthony Jay (Management Trainer) “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions.” Gail Sheehy (Author) says that “creativity can be described as letting go of certainties.” 

The University of Michigan “Criticial and Creative Thinking” Page at sees criticial thinking as “the process we use to reflect on, assess and judge the assumption underlying our own and others ideas and efforts” and creative thinking as “the process we use to develop ideas that are unique, useful and worthy of further elaboration.” 

In his paper “Critical Thinking and Creativity:An Overview and Comparison of the Theories” Jean Marrapodi wrote that “Creative thinking is designed to create, and critical thinking is designed to analyze. It seems that creative thinking has aspects of critical thinking, and critical thinking has aspects of creativity.”

How Do Creative Thinkers Handle Failing?

Creativity is now seen as generating a great deal of value in our complex global society, but it requires the element of action and a tolerance for failure. In his article “Wierd Rules of Creativity: Think You Can Manage Creativity? Here’s Why You’re Wrong” Robert Sutton says that

If you want a creative organization, inaction is the worst kind of failure—and the only kind that deserves to be punished. Researcher Dean Keith Simonton provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from action. Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues.

Robert Sutton, “Wierd Rules of Creativity: Think You Can Manage Creativity? Here’s Why You’re Wrong” , Harvard Business School Working Knowledge for Business Leaders, online at

The Role of Creativity in Leadership

As leaders, we need to create an environment where learning and creativity are encouraged, where people are respectful, and where work is meaningful. In such an environment, people can actually enjoy what they’re doing.

Here are two compelling definitions  that place creativity in the context of the fun and the joy of learning:  

“Creativity is the joy of not knowing it all.” Ernie Zelinski, Creativity Expert 

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”  John Maxwell, Leadership Author

When we use our creativity, we can do our best work.  In her article “What is Creativity Anyway” Huffington Post author Jan Phillips says that “Creativity is about being fully alive, living courageously, or as the painter Joan Miro´ says, ‘Expressing with precision all the gold sparks the soul gives off.’ “

Using our creativity is part of expressing our authenticity as leaders. Leaders who are leading authentically and using their creative capacities within ethical boundaries will find it easier to

  • stay ahead of change
  • build a loyal, productive team
  • find innovative solutions to complex problems, and
  • engage others in the work of meeting goals and advancing the organization’s vision and mission.

In his article on HBR Blog Network called “Why Are Creative Leaders So Rare?” Navi Radjou describes “a new breed of visionary and empathetic leaders who act less as commanders and more as coaches, less as managers and more as facilitators, and who foster self-respect rather that demanding respect.”

Creative Thinking Resources:

Creativity Tools,

Creativity Tools,

Tools for Creating Ideas,

About the Author Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context, a consulting firm that also publishes leadership development modules, graphics, case studies, discussion guides and videos. Her mission is to clarify what it means to lead ethically in a complex world. Linda is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor teaching Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Her most recent publication is a Leading in Context™ Video called “The Evolving Leadership Context: Respectful Workplaces” which is downloadable at the

A Guide to Finding What You Need: How to Use the Leading in Context® Website

100 Trends to Watch in 2012

100 Trends to Watch in 2012

As we enter 2012, these trend reports will give you a sense of where the world is going in a variety of different areas, from responsible leadership to social media, branding, consumerism, mobile apps and web design, food and color trends.  Enjoy!

Leadership 2012 Corporate University Exchange

10 Sustainable Business Trends Worth Knowing For 2012 by Julie Urlaub, Blog

8 Digital Trends Shaping the Future of Media (VIDEO)  Stephanie Buck,

8 Social Media Trends for 2012 Gini Dietrich,

12 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2012

6 Social Media Trends for 2012  David Armano, HBR Blog Network

JWT: 10 Trends for 2012 Executive Summary at

“Dealer-Chic: Why for Consumers Deals are Becoming a Way of Life, if Not a Source of Pride

Social Media Marketing and Business Trends 2012 by Priit Kallas,

10 Cutting Edge Mobile Application Trends for 2012 (slideshow)

Web Design Trends in 2012 Jake Rocheleau,

Color Trends for 2012: Balance to Preservation by Susan at

Food Trends 2012: Custom French Fries and Grilled-Cheese Infused Vodka by Lauren Torrisi,

Guiding Growth: Future Trends in Leadership Development cmaconsult on slideshare

The Brand Keys 12 For 12: Brand and Marketing Trends for 2012 Part 1 Robert Passikoff,

Chef’s Predict Top Menu Trends for 2012 Bret Thorn, Nation’s Restaurant News at

About the Author Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context, a consulting firm that also publishes leadership development modules, graphics, case studies, discussion guides and videos. Her mission is to clarify what it means to lead ethically in a complex world. Visit for more information about Linda, her background and her mission. Linda is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor teaching Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Her most recent publication is a Leading in Context™ Video called “The Evolving Leadership Context: Respectful Workplaces” which is downloadable at the

What is Social Media Leadership?

Note: The idea for this post came from a reader’s comment about how new the area of social media leadership is to the leadership community (Thanks Justin!).

What is Social Media Leadership?

We are learning our way through this new area of leadership, which involves:

  • Thinking completely differently about what we do and how we do it
  • Integrating work in new ways that blur the lines between communication, marketing, research, customer service and customer engagement
  • Engaging in transparent real-time communication with followers, colleagues, critics and customers
  • Leading change in an area where we may not yet be fully comfortable, but where the organization needs to go to stay current, relevant and viable.
Social Media Leadership Requires Changing and Leading Change
In leading social media engagement, we first have to change and embrace social media, then help others see the value and make the change, then lead the cause within the organization in ways that benefit multiple stakeholders. This challenge is multi-level and begins with making changes to our perception of our personal and organizational boundaries that seem catastrophic to some leaders.
While we may have thought in the past that we could “lead from a distance,” the social media world is more like being in a virtual coffee shop with everyone who’s ever heard of your brand, your (happy and unhappy) customers, your employees, your competitors, your suppliers, your biggest fans, and the rest of the global community across geographic and industry boundaries. The good news is that people will hear about your business a lot faster. To have that awareness lead to business growth though, they will need to believe that you are concerned, responsible and responsive to their needs.

This collection of resources that I have collected for you will help you and your teams:

  • see the value of joining the social media information wave
  • lead individuals and groups through engagement with social media, and
  • lead your organizations through successful integration of social media into daily business.

How we Think About Social Media

The Six Attitudes Leaders Take Toward Social Media by Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald, Harvard Business Review, (this article includes a social readiness assessment)

How it’s Changing the World and How we Work 

Leaders & Social Media: 5 Reasons to Engage by Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog (One of my popular recent posts!)

How We Need to Lead Social Media

How to Change From a Social Media User to a Social Media Leader Blog

How we Begin to Integrate Social Media Into Business

The 10 Stages of Social Media Business Integration by Brian Solis on

Five Ways Corporate Culture Determines Social Media Success by @markwschaefer,

What it Takes to Succeed in Social Media Leadership

To be successful as social media leaders, we will need to demonstrate humility, a willingness to learn and a desire to keep ourselves and our organizations competent as the world changes.

About the Author

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context, a leadership development firm publishing learning tools that clarify what it means to lead ethically in a complex world.

How Can Leading in Context® Publications Help Our Business?

You are invited to access the full benefits that Leading in Context provides to customers and subscribers:

Ways That Leading in Context® Publications Meet Our Needs #7:  “We need a frame of reference for talking about what respect is and how to treat each other respectfully.”

Products That Help You Build a Respectful a Workplace Include:

     GR #001   Graphic  “Ethical Interpersonal Behavior”

Read More About This Graphic and see an excerpt in the articles Ethical Interpersonal Behavior Graphic: Red, Yellow and Green Zones” and  “Ethical Leaders Care Part 2: In Action”

This stoplight graphic can be used as a tool to engage your leaders in a discussion about:

  • Which behaviors are we seeing in our company that are in the red zone (behaviors that have no place in the workplace)?
  • How often are we supporting one another and operating in the green zone?
  • How can we communicate the expectation that everyone in our organization needs to be operating in the green zone (the ethical ceiling) and the yellow zone (caution – the ethical floor) and not in the red zone?

“Most Wanted” Leadership Skill 2010

What is the most desired business leadership skill according to CEOs?

It may surprise you to learn that it’s Creativity.    Because of the complex challenges businesses are facing,  the fast pace of change (and many other reasons) CEOs most want leaders with creativity and problem-solving skills.

Read about the results from a new survey in the article “What Chief Executives Really Want” by Frank Kern,  Bloomberg Business Week, May 18, 2010.


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