Rethinking “Smart” Leadership in an Ethical Context

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This week I’m looking at what it means to be a “smart” leader through the 7 Lenses (introduced in the book 7 Lenses) to get the full ethical context. Take note: You can do this with any idea, concept or project to better understand the ethical nuances.

Lens 1 Profit

“Smart” means making as much money as you can (which has no ethical grounding).

Lens 2 Law

“Smart” means avoiding punishments and penalties and taking advantage of loopholes for maximum gain (which isn’t leading with values).

Lens 3 Character

“Smart” means always thinking from a grounding in personal ethical values and ethical awareness.

Lens 4 People

“Smart” means being aware of our impact on a diverse group of others, working hard to benefit them and avoid harm.

Lens 5 Communities

“Smart” means pulling the community together and improving the lives of the people who live there.

Lens 6 Planet

“Smart” means protecting the planet, nature and ecosystems for our future well-being.

Lens 7 Greater Good

“Smart” means making life better for future generations.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Looking through these 7 Lenses of Ethical Responsibility, we see a picture that matches the highest levels of corporate social responsibility. We begin to realize that “smart leadership” includes acting on all of these lenses at the same time. This practical multi-lens perspective shows us the nuances of how we need to respond to our stakeholders and handle our ethical challenges. 

Click on the book cover below to see a preview and consider how this way of thinking could move your organization’s metrics (see Chapter 2 for details).

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The Trouble With Certainty

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Leaders may think that being decisive and “sure of things” helps them succeed, but if they do, they may be harboring an outdated view of leadership.

What has changed about how we see leadership and certainty? 

Being certain carries with it the connotation of not engaging others in the conversation and using one-way communication. It evokes images of an iron fist pounding on a desk, not a leader who enjoys “working beside” a talented and diverse team.

Imagining a leader who’s “certain,” we may think about someone who operates as a lone wolf or someone who is holding fast to an outdated world view and refusing to adapt as the world changes. 

The Quest For Uncertainty

Whereas certainty is “out,” uncertainty is the new hallmark of great leadership. Uncertain leaders ask more questions and engage more stakeholders. They see value in dialogue and in the somewhat messy but always interesting process of learning. Uncertain leaders know that the minute they become “certain” and unwilling to adapt to change, they are at risk of making an ethical mistake. 

When is certainty a good thing in a global environment?

While uncertainty is hallmark of great leadership, there is one thing leaders should always be sure about in a rapidly changing global context. It helps them navigate the uphill terrain of perpetual uncertainty. What is it that they should always be sure about? Their values. 

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Untangling (Social and Mainstream) Media Ethics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Anyone can post content on social media. In the UNESCO report “The Media: Operation Decontamination,” Aidan White notes that “Today, it’s not just journalists who need to watch their language and show respect for the facts; everyone with something to say in the public information sphere needs to show some ethical restraint.” 

Today, I’m sharing resources for understanding the ethical responsibilities of media leadership. There are many variables complicating media ethics. Six of them are named below. 

Variables Complicating Media Ethics

  • Mainstream media is competing with social media for people’s attention
  • There are differing standards/ethics codes for media by country (and we’re globally connected on social media)
  • A glut of content makes it harder to reach and retain readers/viewers/followers
  • Mainstream media is seeking advertising income (while competing for people’s attention)
  • Activists and others share passionate expressions of their beliefs (and some of those beliefs conflict with ethical principles of journalism)
  • We have a desire for freedom of speech and expression AND a desire for respectful discourse and freedom from violence. Sometimes these freedoms conflict. 

Accountable Journalism has links to hundreds of international codes of media ethics, accessible by continent. Since countries disagree about the limits and protections of free speech, there is a need for global direction.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner shares this International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by 74 countries. Extremely relevant today, Article 20 provides high level international guidance on protecting human rights and freedoms: 

“Article 20
1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

United Nations Human Rights OHCHR, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 20 is a powerful guideline, but with the explosion of content on social media, there is the temptation to abandon these important principles (and ethics) just to get people’s attention. The competition for views and advertising dollars is fierce, but there’s more to the story. Leaders and media platforms focusing on metrics and struggling to compete may fail to notice rapidly increasing expectations for authenticity, transparency and human rights. 

The Ethical Journalism Network shares 5 Principles of Ethical Journalism.

Reuters Institute For the Study of Journalism shares Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2017 by Nic Newman.

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Adaptation and Controlling Leadership Can’t Coexist

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Leaders who solve complex problems need a special blend of qualities – the curiosity to untangle the variables, the persistence to keep trying, and the openness to change beliefs and strategies as answers emerge from the chaos. 

But those qualities will only take them so far. They’ll also need to be great listeners and engaging leaders, so that they gather information from stakeholders and team members. They’ll need to be systems thinkers with a global mindset.

Even if leaders usually demonstrate those important qualities, when problems seem too complex to solve they may be tempted to use ineffective approaches to gain a sense of control. Facing increasing complexity, they may revert to negative patterns instead of adapting to change. I think we’ve probably all done this when we’re stressed – as leaders or even as parents – becoming more inflexible and demanding that things go a certain way.

“What we see in our data over and over again is that when faced with complexity, the natural proclivity of people and organizations is to respond with order—to turn to hierarchical approaches of leading and managing change top-down.”

MaryUhl-Bien and Michael Arena, in their article “Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability

What happens when leaders fail to notice that they are “taking control” instead of influencing and engaging? They de-motivate teams of highly talented people trying to stay on the cutting edge of an industry. That de-motivation can lead to a spiraling decline in important organizational metrics.

While it may provide the illusion of control, controlling or top-down leadership doesn’t invite organic information sharing or encourage rapid adaptation. Both are needed for survival in today’s evolving global marketplace. 

Want to Learn More? Join Leading in Context CEO Linda Fisher Thornton Thursday, November 9 for Developing Leadership That Inspires, a Live Online Workshop via Compliance IQ.

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Use It Or Lose It

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I recently started studying the German language again, relearning it a little bit every day. I studied it for years as a teen, and lived in Austria for a summer as a young adult. Once fluent, I haven’t practiced the language regularly and have become rusty over the years. 

It doesn’t take long to begin to lose vocabulary, grammar and confidence if we’re not using a language regularly. 

Losing fluency gradually over time brings to mind what happens to our leadership if we’re not learning new things every day. It’s sometimes a slow erosion of capacity, like losing a handful of grains of sand from a beach each day. We may not notice it’s happening until we find ourselves underwater. 

How can you move your competence as a leader into your daily priorities

What areas of your leadership are slowly going underwater due to a lack of attention and practice? What will you do today to stop the erosion? 

 

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What Does It Mean To “Do The Right Thing?”

Seen Through 7 Lenses of Ethical Responsibility

 

 

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The Questions We Have in Common

By Linda Fisher Thornton

On October 2nd, Krista Tippett gave a talk on “The Adventure of Civility” at the University of Richmond. One of the important things I gleaned from her talk was this recommendation:

Instead of trading in “competing answers or statements made to catch, corner, incite or entertain” we should “share the questions we have in common” and “live into the answers.”

Here are my observations on her important words: 

The big questions we are trying to resolve together cannot be understood using one-way broadcasts. 

Even in a fast-paced, social-media enabled world, it would be wrong for any leader to act as though important and complex issues could be managed responsibly without deep listening and dialogue

Firing answers at each other doesn’t involve listening or self-reflection, but answering questions we have in common (and living into the answers) will require both. 

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Unraveling The Future State of The World

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The Millennium Project is a global participatory think tank with a noble purpose – To “improve humanity’s prospects for building a better future.” I have been a reviewer since 2013 for its Challenge 15: Global Ethics, addressing the question “How can ethical considerations be more routinely included in global decisions?”

“Improving humanity’s prospects” is an ever-evolving quest. The results of The Millennium Project’s most recent work has now been published as “State Of The Future 19.0”. 

Building a better future starts with knowing where we are and where we’re going. You can learn more about The Millennium Project’s most recent assessment of global progress by reading the free executive summary and a newly published book review.

Published on #globalethicsday2017. 

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Decoding 7 dimensions of “doing the right thing” in a global society

 

 

 

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Ethical Leaders Understand the Context

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In a previous post, I addressed some of the risks of not taking time to THINK before making decisions. Today, I want to explore why it is so important for leaders to understand the CONTEXT before they make decisions. 

As shown in the graphic, the context (in all of its complexity) becomes the central feature in building awareness of any ethical issue. Without the context, we are not aware – we only see the parts of an issue that we want to see. 

 

Context and Responsibility 3

Learning about the complexities of an issue helps us see the potential impact of our decision on others. 

We live in a world of human, economic, organizational, environmental and societal systems. Those systems interact globally in complex ways. Solving a complex problem without understanding it well can have unintended consequences

A clear understanding of the context is an important part of staying ethically aware and competent, and both are necessary qualities for responsible leadership. 

Ethical leaders know that there can be no ethical awareness without understanding the context, and without awareness, competence and responsibility are also out of reach. 

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Ethical Leaders Take Time To Think

By Linda Fisher Thornton

What sets ethical leaders apart from other leaders? They take the time to THINK before making decisions. And that’s not all they do that sets them apart. While they’re thinking:

  • They’re listening to those they lead and seeking input
  • They’re intentionally learning about the nuances of the context
  • They’re wrestling with how to do the right thing

The Quick Answer Is Risky

While it may be satisfying for leaders to give QUICK answers to a complex problem, there are risks associated with those quick responses:

  • The quick answers may create more problems than they solve (because the context is not yet fully understood)
  • The quick answers may not be as polite or inclusive or respectful as they should be (because there’s no thinking process, which is necessary for managing emotions)
  • The quick answers reveal a leader’s lack of careful thinking (to those who did take the time to understand the context).

When ethical leadership is required, the QUICK answer is risky business. 

When is ethical leadership required? – Every moment of every day, on every project, in every role, while taking on every challenge and making every decision. 

Ethical leaders take time to think before acting in all of these moments. When they encounter a similar problem in the future, they still take time to think. They don’t assume they have all the information they need, because they know that the context is perpetually changing. 

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Ethical Leadership Interview on Culture Hacker Podcast

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I am delighted that Shane Green, author of Culture Hacker, invited me to be a guest on his podcast to talk about ethical leadership and culture. 

Creating Culture

Culture is what we make of it. As leaders, it’s our job to make it an engaging, ethical, high-trust environment where people can do the very best work of their lives. And while we’re doing that, the world is watching. 

Values Made Visible

Trendwatching.com explains what has happened to culture in a socially connected world: 

“Once, your internal corporate culture was just that: internal. But now that a business is a glass box, there’s no such thing as an ‘internal’ culture.”                  — “Glass Box Brands,” Trendwatching.com

Our organizational culture has become our message to the world about what we value.

Culture Hacker Podcast

Click here to listen to the podcast as Shane Green and I discuss how ethical leadership can transform your culture (and your bottom line).  

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Talking About What Matters (Part 3)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I have heard from readers that this topic is timely and they hope this series will not end with just 2 posts – so here is Part 3

Talking About What Matters

In the post Talking About What Matters (Part 1) I explored how talking about ethical values engages people, helps them find meaning and improves the organization’s metrics. In Talking About What Matters (Part 2), I explored how leaders need to “not have the answers” and be ready to engage in conversations about applying values. 

In Part 3, I want to offer some questions that lead to meaningful conversation. These are not questions that have known answers, but questions that dig into what is weighing on people’s hearts and minds, and identify gaps and opportunities in applying ethical values. 

Questions to Ask

Open ended questions help define appropriate behaviors in the context of your organizational values. They help leaders tolerate “not knowing” and get the conversation started. 

These questions are ones I proposed in an article published by the Association For Talent Development (formerly ASTD) in Training and Development Journal and in a Best of Leadership Development issue. They are helpful conversation starters:

  • 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)

Leading In The “Figure It Out Space”

When we ask questions like these, and open the conversation, we have to set aside our need to be “right.” Values (when brought to life) live in the collective organizational space, not in the domain of any one leader. They also live in the “figure it out” space. It is the struggle to “figure out” how to apply the organization’s values in day to day work and leadership that brings them to life. 

 

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Talking About What Matters (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In a previous post Talking About What Matters (Part 1), I explored how talking about ethical values engages people, helps them find meaning and improves the organization’s metrics. This week I want to begin to explore what the conversation should include. 

You may be surprised to learn that it’s not all about what WE COMMUNICATE about values – it’s their questions that will help us bring values to life.

Our carefully crafted messages about values don’t help people resolve the tricky issues. Those are just scratching the SURFACEWhen people are trying to apply them to resolve tricky issues, that’s when values count the most. 

We need to address their deepest questions. We need to explore the grey areas where they want to understand how to apply values.  Addressing their deepest questions helps them resolve REAL issues, and that brings values to life. 

Many leaders miss the questions or don’t help people resolve them. It’s our job as leaders to fill in the spaces around the words – to help people dig into the places where they see conflicting messages about values and sort them out. Here are two examples that drive home the need for conversations about conflicting messages about values:

Is Respect Really Valued Here?

What if we have always said that respect is critical, but our new manager was disrespectful to members of the team in the last meeting? What might people need to talk about?

How Am I Supposed To Choose Sustainable Options?

What if a project team member knows sustainability is a company value but the purchasing department isn’t offering sustainable paper options in the right size for the task? She knows she’s not supposed to go around purchasing to order items, but she is supposed to uphold the value of sustainability in her choices. Now what?

These kinds of situations are incredibly common. By helping people resolve them, we are moving organizational values from living “on paper” to their rightful place – central to our work. We are releasing the power and potential of those values to transform the organization. 

Some leaders shy away from tough questions like these because they don’t know the answers. Here’s the piece of information they lack: Leaders don’t have to know the answers themselves to help resolve questions like these. In fact, they need to be ready to “not have the answers.” 

The leader’s job is to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing, and to generate authentic conversations about values. By “not knowing” the answers themselves, leaders help others take the journey to meaning.

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Reflections on Truth: Why Is It So Elusive?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Why Is The “Truth” So Elusive?

Last summer, I explored what great thinkers have said about truth in this post: Reflections on Truth: Are You a Seeker?  Today I’m going to dig a little deeper into the question “What is truth?”

I found the BBC radio show A Brief History of the Truth that explores the question across time to give us a broader understanding. It turns out that (according to American satirist Joe Queenan) people have had problems with the truth since the time of ancient civilizations. The broadcast is mostly humorous, but I loved this seriously insightful statement:

“Reality is very complicated. No one perspective on the world can capture everything. So when people talk about “the truth,” often the mistake they’re making is that they’re thinking you can capture everything that’s important about the truth only from one perspective.”

Heard on the BBC radio show “A Brief History of the Truth

It turns out that truth, like ethics, is multidimensional. One sound bite is not going to capture it.

How Do We Find It?

  • Look beyond the soundbite. Since one perspective won’t give us the answer, we will need to use various perspectives.
  • Look beyond our current beliefs and assumptions. We can’t see from multiple perspectives if all we can see is our current beliefs and assumptions, so we’ll need to assume we only have part of the picture.
  • Look beyond the most convenient answer. Since we may tend to see things in our own favor, we will need to assume that the most convenient answer for us is not necessarily the real answer.
  • Bring our curiosity and be open to new insights. If we are going to move past our own beliefs and assumptions and the most convenient answer, we’ll need to remain curious and open to new information that may profoundly change our understanding of the issue.

If you are trying to resolve a problem with a group, seeing the “truth” from the perspective of each person on the team will lead you to mutually beneficial solutions. Take a hard look at your “truth.” Is it one-dimensional, or open to learning about the other perspectives that will give you the whole picture? 

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The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Using the commonly taught types of thinking is very useful in life, and helps us be better professionals and business people. But there’s a catch.

Critical thinking can help you understand why a problem happened. It won’t help you find the most ethical solution to the problem once you identify it.

Creative thinking can help you figure your way out of a business challenge. It won’t keep you within the lines of appropriate and responsible behavior.

Design thinking can help you create amazing interactive technologies. It won’t help you resolve the new ethical issues those innovative technologies generate.

Even if we’re using all three types of thinking in our leadership, there is something important missing. 

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

C. S. Lewis

This quote from C. S. Lewis reminds us that values are necessary for higher level decisions and actions. They help us overcome selfish tendencies and guide us to consider how our choices will impact others. 

It Guides Responsible Behavior

Learning ethical thinking is an important part of human development, but many schools continue to teach subjects without it. 

It Helps Prevent Ethical Mistakes

Ethical thinking is central to many organization’s leader hiring process, but often left out as a grounding theme in leadership development. If your leadership development is not ethics-rich, here’s the big question. 

It’s Our Job 

Why are we teaching a high level understanding of subjects without teaching the ethical thinking to responsibly apply what people learn?

Why are people learning ethical thinking the hard way by making ethical mistakes we could be helping them prevent?

It’s our job as leaders to fill in the critically needed missing domain.

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Ethics-Rich Leadership: Why We Need It

 

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I was originally going to use the words “ethics-infused leadership” in this post, but I realized that would treat ethics a little bit like a lime twist in a cold drink. The drink would hint of lime, but it wouldn’t be FULL of lime. So I chose to use “ethics-rich” leadership instead.

I think you may already be looking for the ethics-rich leadership I’m talking about. 

Ethics-rich leaders create a “safe space” for people that brings out their best. They leaders grow people, paying great attention to individual learning, challenges, potential and  opportunities.

Ethics-rich leaders also create a “safe space” for teams that brings out their best. They help teams learn to respect, include and engage all constituents for the most positive possible outcomes.

Why Do We Need Ethics-Rich Leadership?

Many of our biggest leadership issues are global and long term. We need to get past the distraction of ethics scandals in the news to move forward with a new kind of leadership.

What does it look like? The ethics-rich leadership we seek:

  1. Considers respect, care and long-term thinking to be minimum standards.
  2. Protects our best interests as well as their own.
  3. Respects and honors the values behind our laws and doesn’t try to find loopholes for personal gain.
  4. Leads with positive ethical values, respectfully dealing with difficult issues when people don’t agree on the best solutions.
  5.  Never pretends to “know.” Instead this leader listens, scans, gathers, learns, questions, synthesizes and uses the ethics-rich mindset “I will always be a work-in-progress.

What Does It Look Like In Action?

Anyone can divide people and cause trouble. We need leaders who unite people around positive ethical values.

But it isn’t enough for leaders to just bring people together around values. 

We need leaders who do the work required to understand complex issues so they can make good decisions.

But it isn’t enough for leaders to just unite people around values and do the hard work to understand complex issues so they can make good decisions. 

We need leaders who care about constituents.

But it isn’t enough for leaders to just unite people around values, do the hard work to understand complex issues so they can make good decisions, and show they care about constituents.

We also need leaders who seek mutual benefit, not just “self-serving benefits.”

Ethics-rich leadership, after all, isn’t about position power – it’s about values power. It treats values as the essential business tools they are.  Ethics-rich leaders will reap the ultimate rewards – in transformational performance. 

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