What is “Harm?” (It Depends On Your Perspective)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Leaders interpret “harm” according to the perspective on ethical leadership they are using to make decisions. They may consider harm narrowly (only what would harm them) or broadly (what would harm others and society). 

At its most narrow, harm could be interpreted as harming me or my company’s profitability.

Broadening our view, harm may be interpreted as anything that harms our constituents.

Broadening our view even more, we may see harm as anything that harms anyone.

Here are some examples of how leaders may interpret “harm”:                                                 

What is Harm?

Harm in Profit-Based Ethics =   Anything that harms profits

Harm in People-Based Ethics = Anything that harms people

Harm in Planet-Based Ethics = Anything that harms the planet and nature

Harm in Greater Good-Based Ethics = Anything that harms people, or planet and nature, for current members of society and future generations.

Which definition of harm is “right?” At the highest levels of ethical leadership, we care about all of our constituents and consider harm in all of its dimensions, balancing concerns about profit with concern for others and society.

Leadership Questions To Ponder:

  1. How narrowly or broadly are we interpreting “harm”?
  2. What constituents should we protect that are not currently in our definition?
  3. What changes can we make now to begin to consider our impact on those constituents?

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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