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Leaders may think that being decisive and “sure of things” helps them succeed, but if they do, they may be harboring an outdated view of leadership.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a leader who’s “certain,” we may think about someone who operates as a lone wolf or someone who is holding fast to an outdated world view and refusing to adapt as the world changes.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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Leaders: Does Your Values Equation Add Up?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Every leader has a values equation. It can be calculated by the day, week, year and lifetime. In the ideal situation, a leader’s values equation is consistently positive. 

How do you calculate your values equation?

Take the number of your intentionally positive values-based actions.

Add to it the number of ethical decisions you have struggled to make well.

Subtract the number of times you have acted in any of these unethical ways:

  1. Too busy to be available to those you lead
  2. Disrespectful to anyone
  3. Self-interested
  4. Putting profit before people and the planet 
  5. Not making time to learn
  6. Not really listening 
  7. Misleading, leaving out the context
  8. Not getting to know the people you lead as unique individuals
  9. Paying more attention to your own career success than to theirs
  10. (You get the idea….)

You won’t be able to calculate an exact number due to the speed of work and life, but you will be able to get a clear idea of whether your values equation is more positive than negative. 

Ethical leadership is difficult to get right all the time. 

Ethical leaders may make mistakes, but they learn and improve. The best leaders understand the importance of a values equation that’s positive – not just today, but every day, week and year… They know leading with a positive values equation is the most important legacy they can leave. 

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

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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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The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The first post in this series, “The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking” explored WHY leaders need to fill the gap and help people develop ethical thinking. This post will begin to unravel HOW to do that.

I included this guidance on ethical thinking in a previous post:

Ethical thinking means we never lose sight of our positive purpose. We choose to be the sum of our values, not our challenges.

How do we make sure we are acting as the sum of our values and not our challenges? We need to find ways to keep ethical values alive so that the “values voice” is heard just as loudly as these voices:

  1. Shrinking profit margins
  2. Tight product development timelines
  3. Lean staffing and heavy workload

Exercising Our Values Voice

When our “values voice” is at least as loud as those other voices, we can avoid these unethical scenarios that can happen when we address our challenges without values:

  • Shrinking profit margins  (Unethical Scenario: making more money by ignoring ethics)
  • New product development timelines (Unethical Scenario: cutting safety corners to meet deadlines)
  • Lean staffing and heavy workload (Unethical Scenario: overworking employees instead of finding innovative ways to do work)

Don’t let it happen in your organization. Challenges are “loud” and urgent.

People need to learn how to think through their difficult challenges while staying grounded in ethical values. The first step is making it clear that our values always drive our choices. To avoid having your team get  pulled away from ethics, exercise your “values voice.” 

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Credit Where Credit is Due

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Author’s Note: This post is in honor of the many people who have had to fight to get credit for their own work.

Giving Credit and Taking Responsibility

As our understanding of good leadership continues to advance, we are rapidly moving away from leaders “giving responsibility and taking credit” in leadership and moving toward “giving credit and taking responsibility.” This change is overdue, and is part of a bigger change in our understanding of the purpose of leadership.

What’s Wrong With Taking Credit?

We’ve seen many cases of leaders in the news who claimed to have credentials that they did not earn (and many were fired as a result). That is the visible side of the “taking credit” problem. 

There is also a more hidden side to the problem. I have heard from people who have had superiors tell them that they were “too inexperienced” or “too low level” to publish groundbreaking work they had done (and that it would have to be published under the superior’s name instead).

It Violates Many Ethical Principles

Taking credit for work that someone else has done violates many ethical principles:

  • It’s dishonest. It tries to grab credit for something without having to do the hard work. That’s typically referred to in society as “stealing.” 
  • It derails or delays the success of the person who DID do the hard work. That’s usually referred to as “harm.”
  • Intentionally saying that something is true when it isn’t true is often called “lying.
  • When a person claims false credentials, that’s also called “fraud.” 

Remember that good leadership is all about what we do for others to enable their success. That means we hold the responsibility for supporting the success of others all the time, even when their work is measurably better than ours. 

Look for opportunities this week to take responsibility and give credit.

Share your insights in the comments!

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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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Talking About What Matters (Part 1)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post begins a series on talking about what matters. Great attention is often paid to values in defining and marketing an organization. But what happens after that? It’s the ongoing dialogue about how to apply those values that brings them to life. 

Some leaders assume that if the values are written down, they will be followed. The problem with that assumption is that while people may WANT to follow the organization’s stated values, they may not know how. Until we engage people in conversations about HOW to apply ethical values, they only exist as an “ideal wish list,” not a set of guiding values for day-to-day work. 

Humans Are Meaning-Seeking Creatures

People seek meaning. We’ve known this since ancient times, but we’re still learning how to help them find it. 

Man is “a being in search of meaning.”            –Plato

“Consciously or not, we are all on a quest for answers, trying to learn the lessons of life… We search for meaning.”           –Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”            –Carl Jung

Great leaders make it a priority to help people find the meaning they seek. They take the time to imagine what each person could accomplish, and who they could become. They help them grow into the best of themselves. 

Why Should We Talk About What Matters?

In addition to helping individuals find meaning in their work, conversations about what matters also help guide organizations to the success they seek. 

Ethical values are a framework for generating a positive impact on constituents and the broader global community.

Talking about ethical values, done right, engages the workforce and improves the organization’s metrics in these important ways. 

  • Engaging people’s hearts and minds in figuring out the right things to do in challenging situations

Helping people figure out the right thing to do increases ethical awareness and ethical competence.

  • Building confidence and helping people find meaning in their work

A sense of meaning and purpose improves engagement, retention and job satisfaction.

  • Centering groups and focusing work on positive outcomes for constituents

Focusing on positive outcomes for constituents makes work more satisfying and reduces ethical risk.

  • Driving good decisions and choices based on values

Having ongoing and meaningful conversations about values improves ethical thinking and decision making.

Talking about what matters gives people the grounding they need to find meaning in their work. Helping them understand and apply ethical values improves organizational outcomes.

Ethical values are the secret ingredient in some of the world’s greatest companies. But they don’t reveal their magic when they live on the website and marketing materials. The magic happens when values become active guiding principles. To get there, we’ll need to have some conversations about what matters…

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