Compliance With Laws Isn’t Ethical Leadership (There’s More)


By Linda Fisher Thornton

Beyond Compliance

I have intentionally avoided using the C-word (Compliance) in most of my posts, and I decided that it was time to explain why. In this post I’ll explain why laws are not enough, and why complying with laws does not mean that we are leading ethically.

Laws Are Not Enough

Many people equate compliance with ethics. Actually, compliance with laws is the minimum standard and does not adequately represent  “ethical leadership,” which is at a much higher level. Laws are the minimum threshold  – below which people are punished. When we settle for this level of ethics, we are simply working toward staying out of jail – and that is not enough to make us good corporate citizens.

Why is compliance with laws not enough when it comes to leading ethically? What else is there?

Here is an example that illustrates the broader responsibilities that ethical leadership includes. Which of these two views of ethical leadership do you think is the most ethical view?

‘Ethical Business’ Means Making as Much Money as I Can Without Going to Jail

If I tend to think in a win-lose way, then I may be more likely to seek gain for myself without concern for my impact on other stakeholders.

‘Ethical Business’ Includes the Responsibility to Respect and Serve 

If I tend to think in a win-win, service-focused way, then I may be more likely to seek positive solutions for others and consider my responsibilities to them more broadly.

Linda Fisher Thornton, Our Thinking is an Ethical Driver, Leading in Context Blog, December 12, 2012

Clearly, the second example demonstrates a higher level of ethical thinking and a broader sense of responsibility than the first. There are laws that say that I should not attack another person in the workplace. The ethical issues about how I need to treat others are at a much higher level than just restraint from physical violence. They include the need to respect others, demonstrate care and concern for them, and treat them with civility.

Learning Beyond Compliance 

Why don’t laws (that represent the “punishment threshold”) represent ethical leadership? Settling for compliance with laws might mean that we would not physically attack each other, but we may still be disrespectful in ways that erode trust and affect the well-being of employees, customers and other stakeholders.

If we focus just on compliance in our ethics training for leaders, we are aiming too low and we will always be scrambling to catch up as laws change. How can we move beyond just complying with laws (the minimum standard) to leading ethically in organizations (optimal)? These posts provide some guidance:

Developing Globally Responsible Leaders        Ethical Leadership Context

Developing the Ethical Leader of the Future

Instead of focusing on teaching leaders how to stay out of jail, let’s focus on teaching leaders what we want – the optimal level of ethical leadership.


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. The law can be twisted and you are allowed to tip toe the line of the law. Decisions that are based off of the law are not always the best. I think having the leader ship to make the correct decision for the correct reasons. Not because one is complying with the law, but because it is for the greater good of the situation. We should base our company decisions not based off of profit, but that is hard to do sometimes, because the decision should be made for the right reasons not selfishly.


  2. Well said. This is something we definietly strive for in our workplace. It is going above and beyond the letter of the law or what common practices are. Instead, as your blog says, we should always go beyond to what is truely right and ethical. I think it is also the responsibility of ethical leaders to require this behavior of others and promote the behavior at any available opportunity. It is sad that the common thought is that of doing only what you are required to, as if that is enough.


  3. Thank you! This also applies in Education Leadership. We have so many laws in education, too often I hear, “we are doing this becuase of a law”. I’ve never liked how that felt or sounded, but you have articulated my feelings well. It is an awfully low standard to live by especially when we are working for, our clients are, our children and families. To be a little corney, our future.


  4. Here it seems there is much distraction. Many levels of regulation, much policy and many books with which to observe. It would seem then the best place to start toward productive outcome is with ourselves. Self. If we are able to identify who we are, within this physical body, it is then possible to see ourselves in each other. It is a big step with volumes of benefit not the least of which is taking responsibility for your self. It is my idea that then the outward regulation, along with the policy and many books fall away and it becomes a new creation. One in which we can restore success on professional as well as personal levels. It begins with us.


  5. I struggled with helping a healthcare organization grasp this concept – I’ve been in regulated industries most of my career, but healthcare is so heavily regulated and policy driven that employees have lost the ability to think for themselves (okay – a generalization that may not be true everywhere). I watched a large system strive for Magnet certification (a nursing excellence award that is quite prestigious), and for four years, they read the Magnet book and “did” everything that the book told them to do. They’re still waiting to hear if they “passed”.

    What I never quite was able to convey, is that if they used the power of the creativity and energy of their employees and defined and executed on an excellent workplace, they wouldn’t have to worry about the book.

    I think compliance/ethics is like that – and perhaps it is because our world has become so complex and fast that we don’t have time to have the dialogue that is necessary to organically build the organization so we look to policies, award criteria and yes/no answers because they are easy and quick.


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