Leading the Conversation About Ethical Leadership

Leading the Conversation

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Dialogue is a powerful tool for developing ethical organizations. Workplace issues are complex and opinions vary about what ethical leadership means. This combination creates a kind of “murky uncertainty” that keeps leaders from giving us their best, most ethical performance.

To move beyond this “murky uncertainty,” we need to take the time to talk about what ethical behavior means. Use the twelve questions in the discussion guide below to start building a shared understanding of your organization’s definition of ethical leadership behavior.


Here are some questions that may help you define ethical issues and appropriate leader behaviors in the context of your organizational values:

  • What are the specific ethical behaviors that are required of all organizational leaders?
  • What are the consequences if they don’t behave ethically?
  • What are the situations that people encounter that could lead them into a grey area?
  • How should those grey areas be handled?
  • What does it look like when leaders perform according to the organization’s stated values?
  • What does it look like when they don’t?
  • How should people make decisions when they encounter difficult situations?
  • Where might our leaders fall into grey areas while implementing our goals and values?
  • What are areas where we will not tolerate compromise?
  • What are areas of flexibility?
  • Where do we need to clarify our mission and values, to make it clear that we are an ethical organization, and ethics is not negotiable?
  • How can we more effectively recruit, recognize, and retain ethical leaders?

Linda Fisher Thornton, “Leadership Ethics Training: Why is it So Hard to Get it Right?”  reprinted in Training and Development: The Best of Leadership Development, American Society for Training and Development. (March, 2010)

Without a clear picture of what ethical behavior means in our organizations, we’re unlikely to achieve it.  While the conversation may take some time, it will take less time than dealing with the problems that happen when leaders work in “murky uncertainty.”

Let’s get the conversation started.


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
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. Cam, that is so well said. There is a strong service component in ethical leadership that cannot be ignored. It’s time to move beyond zero-sum and either-or kinds of thinking and to embrace all of the responsibilities and opportunities that ethical leadership brings.


  2. One of the frustrating issues about ethics and leadership is that there are more than a dozen ethical perspectives that all have a valid rational basis in business ethics alone (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2012). As Neil Brady (1998) has explained, we need to understand that these varying perspectives each call out a different “voice” and those voices need to be understood and integrated.

    Moral leadership is about honoring universal principles, values, and truths to optimize long-term wealth creation while honoring duties owed to all stakeholders (Covey, 2004). Leaders must understand, assess, and explain the economic, legal, and moral impacts of decisions that they make to those whom they lead in order to be perceived as credible (Hosmer, 2007).

    Leaders must be “transformative” — possessing a multitude of ethical and leadership perspectives and demonstrating the ability to connect with people at the personal level while demonstrating profound knowledge, competence, and ability (Bennis & Nanus, 2007). Leadership is often unsuccessful because those who lead fail to deliver excellence — the foundation of EVERY ethical leadership perspective (Solomon, 1992).

    Leaders must raise the bar for themselves and recognize that leadership is a
    covenantal relationship (Pava, 2003). As Max DePree has beautifully explained, a leader must be “a servant and a debtor” who honors relationships with those whom (s)he seeks to lead.


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