Helping Young People Become Ethical Leaders


By Linda Fisher Thornton

How do we help young people become ethical leaders? This is an important question because our long-term future depends on how well we prepare young people to make positive ethical choices and honor multiple dimensions of ethical responsibility.

“We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up. …They are considerably braver than most grownups. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it.” 

—–Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

We have an obligation and an opportunity to help children and teens learn how to become responsible people and good leaders. Besides modeling what it looks like by living out positive values, what else can we do? One of the most important things we can do is to help them get to know themselves as ethical people. They are still learning and defining themselves. We can let them know that they are good people, and we must not waver from that message even when they make mistakes. 

We need to remember that young people are adults in training.

We can help our young people build a scaffolding for thinking through ethical challenges. We can help them learn that ethics is about positive actions, not the ethical mistakes often covered in the news. Helping them interpret what’s going on in the world according to positive ethical values helps them make ethical choices.

Another important role parents and teachers play is encouraging young people to reach for their potential and to become their best selves. This support requires a growth mindset, not expecting perfection, but encouraging their long-term growth. 

“Treat a child as if he already is the person he is capable of becoming.”   

—-Haim Ginott

This support for “who they will become” can help provide meaning in their lives while they navigate an education system that can seem burdensome and a society that is a work in progress. We should encourage young people to serve others and to make a positive and lasting contribution in their communities. 

Young people need help learning how to succeed in living positive ethical values in a world filled with distractions and negative messages. Our job is to help them center themselves in positive ethical values and get to know themselves as good people. We can be a filter, an interpreter and a beacon for them as they find their way.

Note: This post was inspired by last night’s 7 Lenses book talk Raising Children to Be Ethical Leaders: Ethics, Honor and Today’s Students at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. There are resources for parents, teachers and teens available at under the topic “Parenting.”

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7 Lenses is a leadership book that is also appropriate for middle and high school students. It provides 7 Lenses and 14 Guiding Principles for leading responsibly in a complex world (Foreword by Stephen M. R. Covey).

2014 Axiom Book Award Winner in Business Ethics  

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership™

©2015 Leading in Context LLC


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