Got Ethics? Are You Positive?

Got Ethics? Are You Positive?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Is your ethics training focused on positive values? In spite of all the bad news you’ve seen in the media about ethics, we don’t build ethical cultures by focusing on the negative. Let’s face it – thinking about fraud, embezzlement and conflict of interest won’t make us better leaders. But that’s what many of us are focusing on in our organizations.

The future of ethical leadership is intentional, proactive and positive. 

We need to stop focusing on NEGATIVE examples (what we don’t want) and start focusing on what ethical leadership looks like in action (what we do want). Ethical leadership at its best looks POSITIVE. That’s where we need to be focused in our conversations and our leader development.

Only by intentionally focusing on positive ethical values are we ethical leaders. 

Only by intentionally focusing on positive ethical values do we create ethical workplaces.

Operating in the realm of values means shaking off the temptation to become fixated only on laws and regulations. Laws and regulations are there to remind us of the minimum standards. We need to focus on the higher level values that should guide our work. Operating in the realm of values includes:

  • Having a positive vision of how values can transform our leadership and our organizations
  • Clearly understanding and communication the ethical behaviors we want people to use
  • Making day-to-day decisions based on positive ethical values

Being ready for the future of ethical leadership requires shaking off a compliance based mindset and operating in the realm of values. 

Have you “got ethics?” Is your ethics based on positive values?


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

© 2014 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. Thank you, Dominique. Unfortunately, some people have a “liability” view of ethics, as you mentioned, which means that they are more concerned with the risks to their organizations than the benefits of ethics. Using that mindset alone and not including positive values, codes are not very useful in providing guidance to people about what they should do and why it is so important. Another problem with using only the negative risk approach is that it will not help build an ethical organization in the fullest sense of what that means. See “Using Negative Examples to Teach Ethics? Why It’s Not Enough” at this link for more on that topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Linda,
    Great post. I’m horrified how few people really know what ethics are – that it’s a daily practice of thinking of the impact of your business on others – not just a set of rules. But when you think about it, ethics are often an optional course in business and finance. I’ve studied leadership and written about ethics being at the heart of trust, and agree with your aspirational direction. It should be about values and virtue. It should be about long-term thinking. That’s why I was so disappointed earlier this year when a compliance officer implied that the code of ethics in his organization also protects the firm. They can say ‘hey the employee signed this code’ which allows them to discipline, terminate or limit their liability. Do you think it’s better to have a code that outlines what is not permitted or not to have a code at all?


  3. I agree 100% Linda. Practicing ethics have been a defensive game played by the senior leaders and we need to build a business culture in which all stakeholders are responsibly practicing ethics in their interactions. I am not a big fan of the term “ethical leadership”. Is there any other type of true leader? We need authentic leaders that are ethical and inspirational.

    As Dov Seidman, founder of LRN has stated, many business leaders follow the management guru named the “Godfather”. The famous quote from the movie: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” In this interconnected and transparent business world, “everything is personal”. Capitalism has morphed to a laissez-faire zero-sum game of short-term financial performance over doing the right things.

    I believe in order to sustain and grow a business; requires the leadership mindset and behavior of proactively looking after all your stakeholders interests. This requires higher purpose, sustainable values, and high relationship capital trust that delivers results in the right way.

    The business case is there. Greater employee engagement, higher levels of employee engagement, and lower operational risk. The CEO can no longer delegate the conversation to the corporate legal counsel or the chief risk officer. We have a long journey ahead in making progress. As true leaders, let’s start today.


  4. Don’t give up the quest. It is a lifelong journey, so changes are slow and we might not see the results right away. Try focusing on the good news that’s out there about our collective progress – “Over the last two years, observed misconduct fell in every one of the 26 specific categories we asked about in both NBES 2011 and NBES 2013.” Ethics Resource Center National Business Ethics Survey,


  5. William,I definitely agree that at times living and leading with ethical values can be hard work. But I also see benefits – using ethical values brings out the best in us and helps us grow.


  6. Ethical values are costly values which in retrospect I often wonder if life would have been easier as a common thief or simply join the ranks of the common man, woman.


  7. Perfect, Linda. I recently wrote on the notion of focusing attention and energy and how it is often misdirected. “What you focus on determines what you miss.” I really like how you put forth the notion of orienting toward higher, positive values rather than minimum standards or faults. Attention and focus is an interesting phenomenon; it seems our brains, our attention, our actions are drawn to, even end up supporting, what we are focused on.

    Good insights. Thanks!


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