By Linda Fisher Thornton
This series is adapted from an article I wrote for the Non-Violent Change Journal in 2014 that seems even more relevant today in light of current events.
When we lead for the greater good, we leave a positive legacy for future generations. At this highest level of ethical leadership, we ensure quality of life and opportunities for others we may never meet, well into the future. We intentionally create a better world.
Wanting to do good in the world reflects a high level of moral development, where we think well beyond our own gain and our own needs, in order to help others. The Principle “Do Good Without Doing Harm” is one of 14 Guiding Principles of ethical leadership that I describe in my book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.1 When we do good without doing harm we think about how our decisions and actions will impact people and communities. We take on a broad service mindset and seek to demonstrate care for others.
Hippocrates said “Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.”2 Avoiding harm involves thinking well beyond what we want, and considering the well-being of others. It requires that we take the time to consider the most beneficial and least harmful ways to accomplish our goals.
Thinking about violence in terms of the principle “Do Good Without Doing Harm,” the following three things become clear:
- Violence is not a long term solution
Violence is expedient, robust and visible. It makes a clear statement about power and intent. These short-term
benefits may at first make us feel as though we are doing something to improve our world. But on what foundation is
violence based? Is it based on the kinds of ethical values that create a positive long-term future – care, respect, and
“do no harm?” Or is it based on the kinds of values that usually worsen situations in the long run, like “control and
conquer?” Because violence is based on power, not cooperation or mutual benefit, it can lead to more violence, a
vicious cycle that is hard to break. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can
only be attained through understanding.3
- Violence represents a low level of human development
At the lowest levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are just focused on our own survival. Violence is a response
that we can compare to the fight-or-flight response we have when our lives are in danger. This is not the kind of
thinking that considers our long-term future, but the kind that ensures our immediate safety. When we act out of a
survival instinct alone, we don’t think long term or create a better world. As Leo Tolstoy said, “All violence consists in
some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do.4” If we are to
protect human life and liberty, our societal goals should be to protect, to care and to serve. If people are continually
exposed to violence, they may become desensitized to it and forget that it is not the desired solution to problems,
and does not represent a high level of human or moral development.
- Nonviolence ensures a better future.
In 7 lenses, I describe an evolution in our understanding of the purpose of leadership from command and control to
concern for the greater good. As we advance in our human development as a global community, it becomes clear that
violence does not support the greater good. Ghandi said “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the
good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.5” When we think long-term, and with concern for the greater
good, we can see that nonviolence ensures a better future.
Watch for the conclusion of this article, which publishes next week.
- Thornton, L. F. (2013). 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership. Richmond, VA: Leading in
- Hippocrates. (1849). On Epidemics, Book I, Ch. 2. (t. b. Adams, Ed.).
- Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. Retrieved January 22, 2014 from GoodReads.com: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/13419-peace-cannot-beachieved-
- Tolstoy, L. (1909). The Law of Love And The Law Of Violence.
- Mahatma Ghandi’s writings, philosophy, audio, video and photographs. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2014, from
Comprehensive Site By Ghandian Institutes Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal and Ghandi Research Foundation:
Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership
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