Ground Rules for Talking About Controversial Topics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Talking about controversial topics has become a daunting task. There are some things we can do, individually and collectively, to improve those difficult conversations. The important points below may be useful to review as ground rules for discussing potentially emotionally charged issues:

CHARACTER

  • Agree on the values that are important to honor. Stay centered in that list of ethical values, not the opinions and wants of each “side” 

TEMPERAMENT

  • Follow ground rules that include mutual respect, listening and avoidance of blaming, labeling or attacking

JUDGMENT

  • Use good thinking, actively questioning your own assumptions, biases, and motives

INCLUSION

  • Consider all humans equally important with equal rights

CARE

  • Demonstrate care for all others involved in the conversation, and really listen to what they think is important

CONSTITUENT – AWARENESS

  • Consider the full impact on all constituents, paying special attention to those constituents not represented in the conversation

LONG-TERM IMPACT

  • Think about the long-term impact of decisions, in addition to the short-term benefits

EXPLORING MULTIPLE VARIABLES

  • Avoid oversimplifying issues by exploring many different variables related to the issue 

USING A SYSTEMS APPROACH

  • Move beyond simple cause-and-effect thinking when discussion solutions. Think about the issue in terms of how it fits into bigger systems, and how other variables beyond those in the conversation can impact outcomes

Are you able to keep conversations civil and productive? Share your tips in a comment below!

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3 Steps For Dusting Off Your Leadership in the New Year

By Linda Fisher Thornton

As we head into a New Year, it’s is a wonderful time to take stock of our leadership. The intense, conflicted global environment we face is formidable. Sitting still won’t keep our leadership up to the task. 

It’s definitely not a good time to let our leadership get dusty from a lack of attention. It’s time to take action.

Here are three things you can do to dust off your leadership and discover your best capabilities this year: 

3 Steps For Dusting Off Your Leadership In The New Year

 

1. Assess Your Ethics

Use this assessment to find out if you’re right on point or a bit behind the times in terms of ethical awareness and expectations.

2. Pick an Area To Dust Off

Pick one area from the assessment that you were not able to check off. This is an area where you can improve your thinking, communication and/or behavior.

3. Learn Deeply, Sweeping Away Outdated Thinking

Dig in to learn more and improve your ethical thinking in that area. To find materials, search this blog for posts on the topic area you chose. Leading in Context posts include links to resources, including many beyond this blog.

Be Alert For These Possible Side Effects

After a thorough dusting that sweeps away outdated leadership thinking, you may notice these common (helpful, not harmful) side effects:

  • Deeper respect from your team
  • Increased employee engagement
  • Improved team productivity
  • Renewed energy
  • Greater satisfaction from your leadership role

Get started now!

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Top Post Series of 2018: Leading in Context Blog

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The Top Post Series this year reflects a concern I have that many other people must share. It is a concern about what can happen when we don’t use ethical thinking.

This series answers the important question “Why should we take the time to think intentionally about the ethics of our decisions and actions?” Today I’ll share a quote from each post in the series that will give you a quick overview of the topic.

Here’s the most popular Leading in Context Blog series of 2018 – Why Ethical Thinking Matters. 

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 1)

“If we just teach people skills, without upgrading their thinking, we are not preparing them for success in the real world.”

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 2)

“You can’t solve a complex multidimensional puzzle a few pieces at a time.”

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 3)

“In a world of ethical complexity, leaders need to learn CLEAR and COHERENT ethical thinking.”

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 4)

“Leaders are ethical brand value ambassadors.”

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 5)

“Ethical thinking doesn’t just HAPPEN in a rapidly changing global environment.”

This timely series includes compelling reasons for making ethical thinking a priority in your board rooms and training rooms this year. Top 100 Leadership Blog

 

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Systems Thinking: Using the 5 Whys

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In my Applied Ethics Class last fall, I introduced my students to the Five Whys. This is a simple and valuable tool for getting to the root cause of problems. We may think we understand why something happened but when we “fix” whatever we think is the sole cause we don’t always get the intended result. The reason for that is that problems tend to have multiple causes. They happen in the context of multiple processes. Singling out one “cause” is rarely sufficient for understanding what really happened.

I’m sharing these resources to help you improve your thinking. Even if you are already familiar with the 5 Whys, you will find the video on the multiple causes of the sinking of the Titanic compelling.

Using the 5 Whys

First, review the Key Concepts of Systems Thinking and the Levels of Systems Thinking Maturity at Thwink.org. 

Second, watch this MindTools video on the 5 Whys and read the article which explains the origin of the method.

Third, learn about root cause analysis at Tableau.com, paying particular attention to the example of the 5 Whys.

Fourth, watch this Think Reliability video on How to Conduct a 5-Why. (Exploring Why the Titanic Sank)

How To Use This Technique

The 5 Whys is relevant in any setting where you need to fully understand why something happened. Use it when people come to you for help with problems. Share it with your project team. Use it to begin to unravel society’s biggest problems and identify solutions. Using the 5 Whys reveals a much more complex landscape than we can see with a “cause and effect” mentality.

Thwink.org shares Einstein’s insight on the kind of thinking we need: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” — Albert Einstein. Using techniques like the 5 Whys will help us adapt in a world of increasing complexity and change. As our problems increase in complexity, so must our thinking.

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Context Matters: What We’re Learning About Food

By Linda Fisher Thornton

New research is turning conventional wisdom about healthy eating inside out. This new research radically changes the way we think about nutrition and wellness and will completely change “best practices” in food-related industries. Here is a sneak preview:

WHOLE FOODS (WITH THE FAT) TEND TO HAVE MORE FIBER AND A LOWER GLYCEMIC INDEX 

“Fat and fiber tend to lower the GI of a food. As a general rule, the more cooked or processed a food, the higher the GI; however, this is not always true.”

Glycemic Index and Diabetes, American Diabetes Association

The reason it’s called “whole milk” has less to do with its fat content, than the fact that it’s comparatively unadulterated.

Roberto Ferdman, The whole truth about “whole milk”, The Washington Post

FOOD COMBINATIONS, LEVEL OF PROCESSING AND BRAIN RESPONSE ARE ALL IMPORTANT 

“Processed foods have an altered food matrix, which impacts their bioavailability.”

Hiip.com, What is the Food Matrix?

“Foods high in fat and carbohydrate are, calorie for calorie, valued more than foods containing only fat or carbohydrate and that this effect is associated with greater recruitment of central reward circuits.”

Supra-Additive Effects of Combining Fat and Carbohydrate on Food Reward, Cell Metabolism

INDIVIDUAL NUTRIENTS DON’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY

“The food matrix may exhibit a different relation with health indicators compared to single nutrients studied in isolation.”

Thorning et al., “Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Applying the “food matrix” concept we learn that we can’t accurately assess nutritional impact based on breaking down individual nutrients in isolation from the whole. We have to consider what we added and what we left out. In other words, context matters. 

We need to see the whole picture to understand human wellness. Whole foods from nature have complex nutritional combinations and protections built into them that vanish when you strip out the fiber and fat. As Aristotle recognized ages ago (and we’re just now rediscovering) “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Questions For Discussion

  1. How are we already contributing to health and well-being through our food choices?
  2. Where should we adjust our practices to reflect what researchers are learning about the complex food matrix?
  3. What should we stop doing or change to support the long-term health and wellness of our constituents?

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The Seductive Power of the Status Quo

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Why do we have such a powerful negative reaction when we find out that we need to change? The status quo literally has a grip on us.

“Bearing in mind our natural propensity for the status quo will enable us to recognize the allure of inertia and more effectively overcome it.”

Rob Henderson, How Powerful is Status Quo Bias, Psychology Today

According to Sue Langley, at the Langley Group, “It takes more effort to think about and do something new than react out of instinct or habit.” Fortunately, she adds, “willpower, focused attention and mindful action can be used to push through resistance and rewire habitual patterns.” (The Neuroscience of Change, Langley Group)

Being aware of the brain’s tendency to want to keep things the same is important in terms of ethical decision making. What could we be missing? 

  • Does that change we’ve been putting off put us at risk of failing to keep up with changing ethical expectations? 
  • Is our discomfort with change causing us to make decisions that harm individuals or groups?
  • Are we thinking short term because it is more familiar, when a long-term perspective is really needed?

It will take an intentional effort to overcome the seductive power of the status quo. Take charge of the decision-making process and use ethical values to make ethical choices. 

Ready to Change the Ethics Quo (For Good)? Part 1

Ready to Change the Ethics Quo (For Good)? Part 2

Ready To Change the Ethics Quo (For Good)? Part 3

Ready to Change the Ethics Quo (For Good)? Part 4

Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us (Part 2)

 

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Ethical Thinking Requires Dialogue

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical leadership requires us to understand the context and embrace the natural complexity of issues. One of the pieces that we can’t be successful without is learning from the widely varying perspectives of others.

“Kohlberg believed, as did Piaget, that most moral development occurs through social interaction.”

Robert N. Barger, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, A SUMMARY OF LAWRENCE KOHLBERG’S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

Thinking in a vacuum without considering the needs of others we may forget important elements of the decision-making process. Have you heard the expression “There’s no ‘I’ in team?” Maybe there’s also (metaphorically) no ‘I’ in ethical thinking when we need to understand complex issues.

In highly complex situations we need to listen to and learn from each other to get ethics right.

One person will be the most knowledgeable about laws governing our work, another will understand the trends and consumer expectations, yet another will ask hard questions to make sure we consider our constituents’ needs. Dealing with particularly complex issues demands an inclusive thinking process. Without any one of these important voices we may lose our way.

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5 Things I Learned From a 6th Grade Bully

By Linda Fisher Thornton

October is Bullying Prevention Month. Most of the people I know were bullied at some point in their lives. As I look back on dealing with a 6th grade bully, I realize that I learned some things from that difficult time. Today I share that story along with resources for bullying prevention. 

My bully repeatedly taunted me. My bully was bigger and taller than I was. My bully was mean. My bully was always there and always looking for a fight. 

I took the “ignore and walk away” approach for a very long time and that only seemed to escalate the bullying. Then an “incident” happened on the playground. On this memorable day she was particularly agitated and lunged at me. The worst case scenario I had feared was actually happening. I stood as tall as I could, closed my eyes and put both hands out in front of me signaling and forcefully yelling “STOP!” She was so startled she lost her balance and sat down hard on the blacktop, and her glasses flew off and broke. 

We were both called to the principal’s office. This was the first time I had ever potentially been “in trouble” and I was sure she had told the principal that I had hit her and broken her glasses, but that wasn’t the truth. I took a deep breath. I thought about the many times I had had positive interactions with the principal. I somehow found the courage to speak. I told him the truth about what happened that day and all the days before when she had bullied me and I was believed. Here are some of the things I now realize looking back on that experience: 

  1. Reputation is everything – when you are trustworthy and honest every day, people will believe you when you most need them to. 
  2. Trust is cumulative – it takes many months and years to build a high trust relationship, but that high trust relationship will help you get through even the most challenging circumstances with grace. 
  3. Aggression and violence don’t solve problems – lashing out at others may seem like a solution, but it isn’t a healthy one. Aggression and violence make problems worse.
  4. Bullies are often hurting inside – it’s easy to forget that bullies may be victims themselves.
  5. Leaders need to create a safe space – with active prevention where bullying is noticed and quickly stopped. 

I still remember that bully’s name, though I won’t share it here. Bullying and other forms of intimidation have lasting effects. We need to do much more to prevent them in our schools and workplaces. We need to be talking about appropriate boundaries of behavior in clear terms

Bullying is damaging by itself but we also need to realize that “bullies are more likely than others to engage in violent criminal behavior” (bullyingstatistics.org). We need a prevention strategy, not just a crisis response strategy. We need to stop negative interpersonal behaviors before they escalate. 

Resources

BBC Capital, Taking on a Workplace Bully by Chana R Schoenberger

UNESCO School Violence and Bullying: Global Report 

https://www.stopbullying.gov/

UNESCO: Let’s Decide How to Measure School Violence

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MindTools Expert Interview Podcast With Linda Fisher Thornton

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Happy #GlobalEthicsDay2018! I recently did an interview with Rachel Salaman for the MindTools Expert Interview Podcast.  We had a lively conversation about ethical leadership and how to leverage the concepts from my book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership

Click on the graphic below to read the MindTools blog post by Rachel Salaman and listen to an excerpt from the podcast. In the excerpt, I walk you through a typical business problem using the 7 Lenses of Ethical Responsibility to show the power of this 7-dimensional model for revealing ethical issues and nuances. 

 

 

 

 

Now it’s your turn. Apply the 7 Lenses to one of your daily challenges to see if it’s a game changer for you. Use this overview of the model to guide you. Feel free to share what you learned. Follow @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses  to make ethical insights part of your daily learning journey. 

It’s Global Ethics Day and we can create better workplaces and a better future. Let’s get started. 

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70 Trends to Watch in 2019

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Each year I curate a list of sites that write about trends that will change how we do business in the coming year. This year’s list includes some ongoing trends from last year and some fresh ideas and new directions. Take a look at the 70+ trends at the links below and start getting ready for what’s ahead!

The Future of Retail, Trendwatching.com

4 Mega-Trends That Could Change the World By 2030, World Economic Forum

2019 Strategic Trends Glossary, Educause

Food Industry Forecast: Key Trends Through 2020, Emerson

John Hall, 5 Marketing Trends to Pay Attention to in 2019, Forbes

Diana Smith, These Tech Trends Will Dominate in 2019, Leader-Values.com

Business Trends That Will Reshape Your World in 2019, fastincnow

7 Digital Marketing Trends That Will Own 2019, SocialReport

Lisa White, The Vision 2019: The most influential macro trends for next year, WGSN

The State of Play, Trendwatching.com

Keep an eye on these trends in the coming months and take time to discuss what they could mean for your business. With change accelerating, having a plan for adaptation will be key. 


To learn how to adapt your leadership to increasing global expectations, read 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.

 

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Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us (Part 3)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

There will always be grey areas that aren’t covered by the ethics code. In grey areas, leaders “paint the boundary” of ethical choices others will make by how they navigate the ethical complexity when the boundaries are not clear.

Part 3 of this series Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us includes cases to get you talking about interpersonal grey areas, and related articles for learning.

Starting the Conversation 

Talking About What Matters (Part 3)

Case Study: Is Withholding Information From Other Leaders Unethical?

Case Study: Think Before You Blame (The Culture May Be The Cause)

Ethical Interpersonal Behavior Graphic

Navigating Grey Areas

Dealing With Complexity? Use Ethical Thinking

Every Decision Changes the Ethical Culture Equation

What is Meaningful Leadership Part 4

Articles About Ethical Values As a Guidance System

Ethical Leadership: Complexity, Context and Adaptation

22 Resources For Developing Ethical Thinking

Use these resources to talk NOW about how ethical grey areas will be handled, before there’s a crisis. Once you decide how to decide, it is easier to handle grey areas when they appear.

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What is Meaningful Leadership? – 4 Common Threads

By Linda Fisher Thornton

What is meaningful leadership? I recently wrote a 5 part blog series exploring different facets of that question.

Part 1 of this series looked at how leaders generate meaningful environments where others can thrive. Part 2 explored a leader’s own quest for authenticity. Part 3 looked at the role of powerful conversations and a focus on relational ROI. Part 4 examined how meaningful leadership requires truth-seeking based on ethical values. Part 5 focused on how meaningful leadership makes a difference by building a better society for the future.

Common Threads

There are four common threads that emerged from exploring the topic that I want to share today.

These are ways that leaders think about and approach their role that helps them create meaningful work experiences:

  1. Thinking global – considering the full impact of decisions on a global scale
  2. Valuing authenticity – seeing the leadership role as a process of growing into higher levels of leadership, not a position of power over others
  3. Seeking collective success – working with others for the good of the group, not the good of the leader
  4. Seeing beyond portfolio growth to human growth – valuing each individual and nurturing them to reach their potential (which requires seeing well beyond the bottom line)

The Leadership Mindset

It is interesting, but not surprising, that all of these approaches rely on the leader being able to take a long-term, “self-aware but humble” view of the leadership role.

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Where Ethics Should Be

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We need to be talking about where ethics should be… how and where it fits into real life. Too many leaders and organizations have crossed ethical boundaries and that seems to be all we’re seeing in the news headlines.

Starting the Conversation

When ethics is central to our decisions and actions, we are more likely to make good choices. To make that happen, we need to be talking about where ethics should be in a leader’s day to day schedule and an organization’s infrastructure.

  • How should ethics factor into an organization’s strategic plans?
  • How can we emphasize it in performance feedback and rewards?
  • Where should it be in monitoring and reporting?

If we aren’t having these conversations, we may have gaps in how we’re handling ethical prevention that can result in unexpected high visibility mistakes.

Places Where Ethics Should Be 

Organizations that tap into the power of ethical brand value and actively seek to prevent problems do more than talk about where ethics should be. They live it by making it central to their operations.

Here are some important conversation starters about where ethics should be in your thinking, your schedule and your goals and plans for the future:

Beyond the Shelf (not just in codes and manuals)

Plans and Strategy

People Management

Company Values 

Executive and Leader Development

Top of Mind (not afterthought or damage control)

Rewards and Promotions

Employee Hiring

Leader Expectations

C-Suite Behavior and Actions

Bringing ethics to life in an organization requires a systemic approach and powerful ongoing conversations. Where else do you think ethics should be in day-to-day leadership?

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Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post is an updated version of a reader favorite. 

There Will Always Be Grey Areas

There will always be ethical grey areas.  We see plenty of information about lying, cheating, stealing and other obvious ethical violations. It is more difficult to know what to do when we encounter behaviors that fall into ethical grey areas, particularly in term of relationships with other people. Grey areas are difficult for anyone to handle but leaders bear the additional weight of needing to set the tone for the organization. Each decision impacts the ethics of the organization.

How We Handle Grey Areas “Teaches” Others (Whether Our Decisions Are Good or Bad)

If we are in leadership, we set the tone for what we want employees to do by what we do. That includes what we do about easy ethical problems (with clear right and wrong choices) and tough ethical problems (with no obvious right choices).

When we make good decisions, people watch what we do and also learn how to do that. If we make bad decisions, we teach others how to make bad decisions and those bad decisions can spread quickly throughout the organization.

How We Handle Grey Areas Paints a Border That Outlines Our Ethics

Sometimes “doing nothing” is an unethical choice. If we allow people to sabotage each other to win rewards, and withhold information from one another to appear more powerful, we are creating a culture that endorses negative interpersonal behaviors. We are “teaching” people that the organization values competition above collaboration and that “anything goes” to get the win.

If we “permit” sabotage and withholding information by not noticing and/or not addressing them, are we also endorsing more negative behaviors that people may see as similar, like bullying and employee harassment? We may be unintentionally sending the message that we allow even more negative behaviors in a broader context – Are we also endorsing withholding information from customers and other important stakeholders? What about regulators? If we allow people to withhold information at one level, are we unintentionally saying that withholding information is okay anytime, at any level?

How we handle the grey areas in how people treat each other paints a border that becomes the outline of our company’s ethics.

Ignoring Negative Behaviors Allows Them to Flourish

When it comes to organizational culture, not knowing is not a defense. When we ignore negative interpersonal behaviors, we send a powerful message across the company to ‘do more of that’!  If we use negative interpersonal behaviors or simply look the other way when we see negative behaviors, employees will too.

Negative behaviors that we choose to ignore don’t typically go away – they multiply when we fail to act because the behaviors are then assumed to be “accepted by leadership.” As leaders we need to walk around, to notice what’s going on, to create high-trust workplaces, to provide opportunities for meaningful communication, to ask people what’s getting in the way of their success, to talk about ethical behavior and to remove barriers to effective ethical performance.

People will follow our lead. When we ignore negative behaviors, we are saying that we accept those negative behaviors.

Work Through Grey Areas Openly – Retain the Ability to Paint the Ethical Border

As leaders, we need to regularly discuss the grey areas in what it means to behave ethically. This lets us help employees define ethical behavior clearly and provide input into the choices they make to be sure that they meet the expectations of the company.  As we learn more as a society about the impact of our choices and our behavior on others, there will continue to be more grey areas where employees will need guidance.

People can usually see ethical grey areas but they may be hesitant to ask for help. By keeping the conversation open and actively addressing grey areas, we retain the ability to define the ethical border. If we don’t talk about it, people will define that border on their own and may draw it outside of the company’s stated ethics codes and values.

Don’t take that chance. Ask employees which ethical issues they want to talk about.

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The Future of Education: Ethical Literacy For Handling Global Complexity

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We are not preparing students for success in the world where they will have to live and work. Some of the ways we currently think about “teaching” need to be scrapped and replaced.

It will be increasingly important that teachers and other learning guides dig into complexity in order to help prepare students who need to handle increasing complexity in their lives and work. A focus on ‘knowing’ must be replaced with a focus on ‘how to think, problem solve and successfully navigate global complexity using ethical values’.

The risk in not quickly making the change to a much more current and engaging way of preparing learners is that every outdated textbook used by schools to save money will contain at best inaccurate information and at worst morally offensive content. Every smart phone will have access to more current and relevant information than is being taught in the classroom. 

Understanding The Challenge, Visualizing the Future

Students need to be able to think successfully at high levels of complexity in order to be effective workers, leaders and problem-solvers. Memorization of facts will definitely not help them be ready. In the old way of thinking, the more people are “taught,” the more they “know.” This thinking does not work because it ignores the important variables of motivation, relevance, learner engagement and the need to improve thinking capability. It ignores the importance of basing choices on ethical values, and focuses only on historical context. 

Learning has become highly self-directed and traditional approaches to teaching (“telling,” “sharing knowledge” and “testing knowledge”) do not support learner success in a complex global context. 

For example, does knowing the complete history of politics prepare learners to handle the current divisive political arena? No, but learning how to think about and act on ethical values will. Does knowing how to write catchy headlines that sell prepare learners for rapidly increasing expectations about appropriate social media posts? No, but learning how to think about and act on ethical values will. 

“Learning Future” Includes

  • A higher level of complexity in thinking (exploring shades of grey, not “right” and “wrong” answers with an answer key)
  • Technology-enabled, just-in-time, user-friendly learning
  • More individualized feedback based on skills needed for future job success 
  • More practicing and evaluating individual and group problem-solving
  • Less memorizing and testing facts (which are easily accessed)
  • More practice time spent learning how to think and act responsibly in the world
  • More awareness of how we fit into the global community
  • More engaging, self-directed work and less homework

A New Role for Leaders in Education

Today’s students are tomorrow’s professionals and leaders. Employers are not easily impressed by book knowledge – they want to know what you can do, for them, in their context, accurately, at high speed, while avoiding ethical mistakes. Adapting to this high employer expectation will turn our current public education practices upside down. 

Ethical literacy is more important than memorization and good test scores. It will define the success of tomorrow’s leaders. We need to make it our top education priority. To respond rapidly to changes in the skills and abilities they will need for tomorrow’s jobs, school administrators will need to adapt quickly to new leadership and learning research and engage everyone in making the change. Only then will we prepare students for success in an exciting, forward-thinking and competitive global arena.  

Masters of Complexity: Leading Effectively in Public Education will help leaders visualize challenges and opportunities for change and decide where to start. 

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