600th Blog Post: 10 Leadership Lessons Learned

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I’ve been blogging for 12 years, after making a very rocky start on March 5, 2009. If I had let my early failures determine my future, I would never have made it to this point celebrating 600 posts on the Leading in Context Blog. Today I’m sharing 10 Leadership Lessons I’ve learned since starting this blog in the hopes that they will inspire you to press forward in your important work.

To sum up the experience so far, it’s been a wild, up-and-down ride. I’ve hesitated, made excuses, written anyway, made mistakes, felt discouraged, gotten back up, and tried again. But the most important thing that has happened over more than a decade is that I think I’ve begun to make a difference.

10 Leadership Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Have the Courage to Question (150th Post)

Don’t be satisfied with “less than great” answers to important questions. Dig deeper. Learn more. Find out if other people are concerned too. Imagine how finding a clearer solution could be transformational.

Lesson 2: Get off of AutoPilot and Take the First Step (150th Post)

Overcoming inertia is one of the toughest challenges. Just take one small step toward filling the need you’ve identified. Get started. See where it takes you.

Lesson 3: Believe You Can Make a Difference (200th Post)

It’s easy to believe the nagging voices in your head saying “You’re not qualified, or “You’re not the right person to do this.” Change your narrative. Lean into the possibility that you just might be able to move the needle on something that would matter to other people.

Lesson 4: Lurch Toward Your Goal and Hold On For the Ride (200th Post)

The movements you’ll make will feel like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back at times. Don’t get discouraged. Take a longer term, higher level view of your overall impact.

Lesson 5: Realize That Growth is Uncomfortable But Worth It (250th Post)

Yes, the impact of your work can be powerful, but your own human growth can be even more transformative. Since human brains are wired to value comfort and ease, do the constant “inner work” telling yourself that growth is worth it.

Lesson 6: Fill the Gap That Calls to You (300th Post)

I didn’t use to believe that everyone had a calling. Now I do. It turns out that great thinkers throughout time believed this, but we seem to have forgotten. Something calls to each of us. Hear it, and answer, to fill that gap that only you can fill.

Lesson 7: Strive For Meaning Not Perfection (400th Post)

This was one of my greatest challenges (since I’m a reformed perfectionist). Learn to embrace mistakes and use them to get better. Look for the lesson to take away from each mistake or failure that can lead you to greater success.

Lesson 8: Never Expect It to Get Easier (450th Post)

I wish someone had told me when I was young that life doesn’t tend to get easier along the way. I thought it would, and eventually had to realize that it was my ability to grow through my challenges that would make it easier, not the circumstances I faced getting easier. Focus on getting better instead of expecting things to get easier.

Lesson 9: Be Ready to Make Mistakes and Keep On Going (Oops – I forgot to celebrate my 550th post during COVID-19)

It helps to have a level of detachment from your work so that you don’t tie up your happiness in things being exactly a certain way or not ever making mistakes. Admit mistakes. It’s part of being human and it helps others trust you more when you don’t pretend to be perfect.

Lesson 10: Realize That Many Small Contributions Add Up to a Life’s Work (500th Post)

After applying the other 9 Lessons, I learned that persistence is really the thing that leads to making the greatest difference in the long run. Do enough small things, and that builds momentum, and adds up to a bigger contribution.

Difference-making doesn’t just happen in big moments. It’s in the thousands of small impacts you have on individual people who learn from your perspective and then go on to influence their organizations, friends and families. Each encounter generates a positive ripple. All of the positive ripples you generate slowly build momentum over time.

I hope these 10 Life Lessons learned on my journey can help you as you pursue your life’s work. We all have capabilities we can tap into to make a positive difference in our communities and our world – even though we’re all too busy, feel uncomfortable stepping out of our comfort zones, and don’t know how to start.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership

Copyright 2009-2021 Leading in Context LLC

When Position Power and Ethics Collide

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Our responsibilities as citizens, workers, leaders, and family members require us to choose ethics over loyalty. Yet, when we do, it can surprise people. Maybe that’s because it is not the easiest path to take. Here’s a story about a situation I faced very early in my career, when I was in my 20s.

The Character Test

I was a low level supervisor, and a department manager from another area stopped by my office and asked me to make an exception to a policy for the employee. After taking a look at the paperwork and asking a few questions, I determined that an exception wasn’t warranted. The employee had not been with the company long enough, and there were no extenuating circumstances. The manager was trying to use his position power to get me to do something for his employee that went against company policy. Making an exception for his employee wouldn’t have been fair to the other employees, and I couldn’t make an exception for everyone.

As I stood there, facing one of my earliest moments of truth, I looked him in the eye and said no. Actually I said something like “I’m sorry, I will not be able to approve it now, but please resubmit the paperwork when the employee is eligible.” The manager was shocked and angered when I didn’t give in to his request, and he stormed out of my office.

Ethical Boundaries Define Who We Are

There are a number of things that can go wrong if we bow down to position power. Blind loyalty to someone based on position power can result in agreeing to anything they say, and doing anything they say. When a person violates ethical boundaries, and we follow along, we’re violating them too.

I have shared with my students in Applied Ethics class that by saying no (politely but firmly) that day, there was an unexpected positive outcome. I ended up creating something like an “invisible force field” around myself that protected my ethics for the rest of my 13 year career with the company. How is that possible? After that incident, word got around. It probably sounded something like “Don’t ask her to do anything wrong. She won’t do it.” I had made the rest of my career easier by establishing a reputation for doing the right thing early on.

If we put position power before ethics, we need to be ready to bear the risks and consequences of that choice (and the flood of additional requests we’ll get when they realize we’re willing to honor their position power with blind loyalty).

When asked to do something you’re not comfortable with, ask yourself:

1. Is it worth it to damage my character and reputation to go along with this?
2. What if this thing I am being asked to do (and about to do out of loyalty) is illegal or unethical?
3. If it turns out to be illegal or unethical, how do I feel about the consequences that may happen to me (blind loyalty is not a good defense in court).
4. What are the options I have (besides doing this thing I’m not comfortable with), and which one is the best, most responsible choice?

Avoid What Appears To Be The “Easy” Solution

We will all be tested. If we decide to put ethics before loyalty to those in positions of power, that will define our personal character in a positive way that will enhance our lives and careers. Agreeing to an unethical request may seem easier for the 5 minutes we’re dealing with it, but always remember that it will be much more difficult when the next request comes (and the next, and the next and the next…).

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership

20 (Responsible) Leadership Outcomes

By Linda Fisher Thornton

With responsible leadership, people experience feelings of self-worth from being treated well, and feelings of usefulness from being able to make a valuable contribution to the team. In this kind of environment, people can best use their talents to forward the organization’s mission.

20 Ways Responsible Leadership Makes People Feel

How does responsible leadership make people feel? Here are 20 human responses that transform individual lives and organizational outcomes. Think about great leaders you have worked with and see if these outcomes resonate with your experience.

1. Able

2. Accepted

3. Appreciated

4. Engaged

5. Hopeful

6. Included

7. Impactful

8. Listened To

9. Needed

10. Purposeful

11. Recognized

12. Respected

13. Safe

14. Secure

15. Talented

16. Trusted

17. Trustworthy

18. Useful

19. Utilized

20. Valued

Are you tapping into these powerful outcomes in your organization? Is every leader on board and consistently demonstrating ethical thinking and action?

Use the ethical leadership guide 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership to learn how to tap into these transformational human outcomes (preview below).

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership

It’s Time For Ethically Adaptive Leadership

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Agility and adaptability are mantras for leaders during this time of global unrest and catastrophic change. Each day brings new challenges that consume our time and require us to grow into higher levels of ethical awareness to avoid missteps and miscalculations. As we try to find stable footing in unstable times, ethical agility will be a factor in our success.

Leadership is Not a “Plug and Play” Role

Leadership is not a “plug and play” role. Our strategies, approaches and mindsets quickly become outdated as situations change. Adam Bryant writes about the wonderful concept of the “frictionless mind” in his article “The Long Lasting Impact of 2020 on Leadership” in s+b.

Having a frictionless mind doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have opinions, even strong ones that you believe are built on a solid foundation of fact and well-reasoned ideas. To me, it means you have a willingness to quickly and easily let go of your beliefs, adopt other perspectives, and question the validity of your underlying thinking.”

— Adam Bryant in The Long Lasting Impact of 2020 on Leadership, s+b

This concept of the “frictionless mind” that Bryant shares is important. It includes the ability to quickly change one’s mind when new information warrants doing that, and includes continually examining long-held beliefs to be sure they’re still morally sound. Agility and adaptability include much more than just our strategy, operations and tactics. They also include our ability to adapt and improve our ethics as we learn and grow.

“Ethically Adaptive” is a New Measure of Success

Things don’t look like they’re going to get easier anytime soon. As Kepner-Tregoe shares in Embracing the Future of Work: The Importance of Agility and Adaptability, “Hang on tight, the future of work looks to be a wild ride!Leaders who succeed will need to stay open to changing any aspect of their thinking that no longer works.

When we are tempted to choose our response to a situation based on power, convenience, money, blind loyalty, or consistency with our previous choices, we should carefully examine our thinking process and beliefs to be sure that we are not blind to the ethical issues involved.

Sometimes when leaders change their thinking and approach based on new information, people mistakenly call it “being indecisive.” Changing our mind isn’t being indecisive when we have new information and have made a more informed ethical choice. When a situation has ethical implications, and we change our mind to make a more ethical choice, we’re being ethically adaptive.

Due to the relentless pace of change, maintaining consistency of character requires ongoing growth.

Being ethically adaptive goes beyond any lower level definitions of ethical competence. It allows us to handle crises and life-and-death challenges responsibly, including the ones we’re facing now during the pandemic. Staying ethically adaptive has proven to be so important that it may very well become the new leadership measure of success.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership

Ethical Awareness is a Moving Target

By Linda Fisher Thornton

How well is your organization navigating the ethical pitfalls of the working world? If you’re finding it to be a major challenge right now, you’re not alone.

Why is it so hard to navigate ethical minefields now?

There is currently a “toxic soup” of factors at play, including:

  • Life and death pandemic safety issues, requiring full cooperation and adherence to safety protocols
  • Continuing pandemic restrictions, isolation, and restriction burnout
  • Racial tension and a renewed focus on real (not just “marketing level”) inclusion
  • Political tension, polarity, disagreement, and blame
  • Worker fears about COVID-19 combined with large-scale vaccine distribution challenges
  • Rampant misinformation-spreading makes it difficult to identify the truth, and even harder to talk about it
  • Financial challenges, with some workers and businesses living on the edge day to day
  • Inability to get on top of putting out fires to see the big picture, combined with a critical need to adapt
  • Concerns about what work will look like after the pandemic combined with a growing awareness that some things will never go back to the way they were

Five years ago, we didn’t imagine that this was where we would be. We should have seen it coming, because we were warned by plenty of experts, but that’s the topic of another post. Looking at the multiple challenges we’re facing now, I see that there is a great need to sharpen ethical awareness, and that organizations that don’t embrace this challenge will be assuming major unnecessary risks.

How do we sharpen our ethical awareness?

Since starting this blog and authoring 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership, I have taken on the mission of providing practical guidance on ethical leadership. The book provides a coherent, easy to apply 7-Lens schema for tackling ethical problems with a high level of awareness. But I have also written short practical posts for leadership development and education, and below I share a selection of those that will be helpful to you now as you navigate these multiple challenges.

What is Ethical Awareness?

Ethics is Action Beyond Self-Interest

Leadership: Evaluating Ethical Awareness

How Current is My Message About Ethics? (Assessment)

How Do We Develop It?

Seeing the Nuances of Ethical Leadership: A Developmental Model

Mindset or Competency: Which is More Important?

Uncomfortable Learning

What is Ethical Thinking?

The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Series)

Rethinking “Smart” Leadership in an Ethical Context

How Do We Navigate Our Current Complex Challenges?

Pandemic Leadership

10 Leadership Strategies For Thriving in 2021

A COVID-19 Leadership Reset: Moving Beyond Paradox

COVID-19: Our Inner Space

Perspectives on a Future With COVID-19

Pandemic Leadership: 3 Questions to Ask in the New Year

Leading During National Unrest and Division

How to Be Human Together

Seeing Beyond Borders and Walls

Pluralism: 9 Elements Required for Ethical Leadership

On Patriotism, Nationalism, Globalism and Ethics

Great Leaders Unite

Labels Divide: Values Conquer

Moving From Putting Out Fires to Seeing the Bigger Context

Prevention or Cure: Your Choice

The Evolving Purpose of Leadership: Why More is Expected Now

9 Ethical Roles: Is Your Leadership Team “All In?”

Talking About What Matters (Series)

10 Tricky Questions About Ethics and Leadership: Answered

Finding the Truth and Avoiding Misinformation

Beliefs Are Complicated

Truth and Misinformation: How to Spot False Narratives (Series)

Reflections on Truth: Why is it So Elusive?

Digital Deception: Unethical Sleight of Hand

Unethical Leadership: Beliefs of Convenience

Ethical awareness isn’t a destination. It’s a moving target. We’ll have to intentionally stretch to meet it. That stretch helps bring out our ethical best, which is what our employees, partners, colleagues and customers deserve.

People will remember how we handled things on their behalf during this time of multiple catastrophes. Let’s make sure what they remember is that we took the time to consider the impact of our choices, took responsible actions, and also provided guidance as they struggled to do the same.

Digital Deception: Unethical Sleight of Hand

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Things are not always as they seem. Technology has advanced to the point that we can’t be sure whether or not what we’re seeing is real. There are many new ways that bad actors are using digital sleight of hand to trick us. And the list is growing.

It will take a healthy dose of skepticism, critical observation and research skills to find out if what we see is as it appears. Educate yourself and your teams about these methods of trickery and how to spot them:

Altered Photos

Photos may have had people (or faces) added or removed, backgrounds changed, or other alterations made.

5 strategies to identify doctored images, Serena O’Sullivan, Multimedia Journalism

Fake news, hoax images: How to spot a digitally altered photo from the real deal, Belinda Smith,
ABC Science

This is How You Can Tell if an Image has Been Photoshopped, Alicia Prince, LifeHack

How to Use Google Reverse Image Search to Fact-Check Images, CommonSense.org

Altered Videos

Artificial intelligence can be used to make people appear to say things they didn’t say, or to remove critical elements of the context around what they said.

Is That Video Real?, AJ Willingham, CNN

How to Spot Deep Fake Videos – 15 Signs to Watch For, Alison Grace Johansen, Norton

How to spot a fake viral video, James Vincent, The Verge

Deep Fake “People”

Some people we see are images of realistic “people” created with artificial intelligence, or are created with parts from real photos of multiple people.

These Videos Tell the Scary Story of How Far AI Has Come, Kelsey Piper, Vox

Thispersondoesnotexist.com Uses AI to Generate Endless Fake Faces, James Vincent, The Verge

Dating apps need women. Advertisers need diversity. AI companies offer a solution: Fake people, Drew Harwell, Washington Post

The Good and Bad News

The good news is that we can use artificial intelligence to detect fake videos and altered photos. The bad news is that we also have to overcome our natural tendencies to believe things we see that aren’t true.

Since we have a very human tendency to believe what isn’t true, to avoid sharing fake sources we’ll need to educate ourselves and our teams about these forms of digital sleight of hand and how to spot them.

Unethical Leadership: Beliefs of Convenience

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Sometimes leaders believe things that aren’t true because they haven’t taken time to investigate the truth. In other cases, they may have trusted someone who has misled them. But there’s an even more problematic reason some leaders may ignore the truth – claiming to believe the falsehood may benefit them in a tangible way.

“There is no such thing as ‘alternative information.’ However, when important information is withheld or if the information is false, it can lead to alternative interpretations. And that’s where you can get into big trouble.”

Jesse Lyn Stoner on Leadership, Give Me the Facts, Just the Facts, Seapoint Center For Collaborative Leadership

Watch for leaders sharing a falsehood that is a “belief of convenience,” which is a type of unethical leadership. It is unethical for multiple reasons. It is intentionally misleading instead of transparent, is based on an ulterior motive, and has the potential to harm.

Ways that believing and/or sharing a falsehood publicly could benefit a leader:

  • Convey a false sense of control in a seemingly uncontrollable or negative situation
  • Advance an unethical agenda
  • Get something from gullible followers who want to believe the falsehood
  • Offer an advantage when regular approaches aren’t working
  • Distract attention away from other more harmful actions

Watch for these signs that a falsehood is benefiting a leader in a tangible way:

  1. The falsehood is shared in ways that stoke anger in the leader’s followers
  2. The leader continues to promote the falsehood after being confronted with clear evidence that the belief is false
  3. Sharing the false belief has the potential to harm
  4. The leader backs down from the falsehood when it has run its course of advantage and becomes a liability

“A liar begins with making falsehood appear like truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”

William Shenstone, Poet, in Essays on Men and Manners

What’s missing when leaders latch onto and share beliefs of convenience? Values. In contrast, ethical leaders know that it’s their job to keep ethical values at the center of their decisions and actions. Ethical leaders seek the truth, and communicate the truth, even when it isn’t convenient.

Top Post Series of 2020: Leading in Context Blog

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The Top Post Series for last year on the Leading in Context Blog reflected the ethical challenges of dealing with misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Truth and Misinformation: How To Spot False Narratives

This series addressed the fine points of how to tell the difference between a false narrative and a message that is true. Here’s a highlight quote from each post in the series that provides an overview.

Truth and Misinformation: How To Spot False Narratives (Part 1)

“Creators of misinformation and false narrative will not want you to look beyond the statements made. Their power lies in the reader’s blind trust. In contrast, sources advocating objective truth will encourage you to learn about an issue so that you can see the situation and the value of the proposed solution for yourself.”

Truth and Misinformation: How to Spot False Narratives (Part 2)

“Misinformation and false narrative rely on raw intimidation power (and not truth power). Look for truth power that stands on its own merits and doesn’t need to attack to deflect attention.”

Truth and Misinformation: How to Spot False Narratives (Part 3)

Misinformation relies on people having an emotional reaction and immediately sharing information with others without taking the time to evaluate its credibility.

It is clearly our job to stay literate as misinformation becomes more sophisticated and harder to spot. Use these insights to improve your awareness and your ability to spot false narratives.

Note: The second most popular Leading in Context Blog series of 2020 was: 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership .

Top 10 2020: Leading in Context Blog

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Of the 52 individual posts published on the Leading in Context Blog in 2020, these 10 were the most popular. See if you notice a theme that connects these new topics that readers accessed most frequently.

#1 10 Leadership Strategies For Thriving in 2021

#2 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From Isolation

#3 Pluralism: 9 Elements Required For Ethical Leadership

#4 Human Leadership is the Leadership We Need

#5 10 Tricky Questions About Ethical Leadership Answered

#6 10 Quotes to Inspire Leaders in Divisive Times

#7 Leading With Values During the Pandemic

#8 Ignoring Toxic Leadership is Not Worth the Tradeoffs

#9 Beliefs are Complicated

#10 Are We Focusing on Employee Engagement Metrics (And Missing the Point)?

If I had to pick a theme for these posts that were most popular in 2020, it would be Ethical Leadership in Divisive Times. This theme reflects our collective struggles as we dealt with acts of racism, conspiracy theories, and blatent disregard for safety measures that were supposed to protect us all during a raging pandemic.

Which post was your favorite? If you have ethical leadership topics you want to learn more about, comment to share your idea!

Pandemic Leadership: 3 Questions To Ask in the New Year

What will make us successful in the new year?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Each year I raise questions that help leaders stay current as ethical expectations change. Here are three new questions to ponder as we head into a New Year. These are important questions about our ethical intentions, actions and impact that will help guide our choices in the coming year.

  1. What do employees want that would increase their engagement and improve their experience? If we know, why aren’t we doing it? What could we change that would make it possible?
  2. What have we learned during the pandemic that should stay ‘top of mind’ as we head into 2021? How can we leverage that awareness to benefit us and our constituents?
  3. What would it take to emerge from the global pandemic with our values more closely integrated with our practices, products and culture? Ethical integration is a trend that is providing organizations with an edge in challenging times.

As ethical expectations continue to increase, the answers to these questions will help us close the gaps between our current intentions, actions and impact, and what our constituents expect of us.

A Message About Connection

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We’ll remember this year for a long time, and we will tell future generations stories about the challenges we endured as we tried to stay safe and well during a global pandemic.

One lesson we can take away from this experience is the power of connection. We found new ways to connect with others, and we needed that reassurance more often. As we dealt with supply-finding and constant rescheduling and a fear of what could happen to us and loved ones, we called old friends and distant family and created new bonds. We had family game nights. We started new traditions that brought us closer together.

This holiday season, I wish you and yours a time filled with good health and well-being and connection. Take a moment to reflect on the power of connection and how you can continue to tap into its many benefits long after the pandemic is over.

Senior Leaders: Set Clear Expectations For Values

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Senior leaders set the tone for an organization’s ethics, but the responsibility for values leadership includes much more than that. Today, I’ll look at the senior leader’s responsibility for sharing clear expectations, and explore other important roles that go well beyond just setting the tone for expected behavior.

Setting Clear Values Expectations

What top leaders do typically becomes the accepted norm for behavior in organizations. So senior leaders need to do much more than keep themselves on the right side of ethics. They also need to ensure that values consistently drive the engine of the organization.

“Few companies set clear expectations for senior executives on ethics and compliance,” stated the LRN report. “Unless senior leaders regularly insist that business decisions incorporate company values, the correct tone at the top will never be set.”

Ben Dipietro, LRN

Championing the Use of Ethical Values

In a previous post, Critical Roles of the (Ethical) CEO, I wrote about these important senior leader roles: Ethical Leadership Role Model, High Level Trust-Builder, Champion For Ethical Values, Ethical Prevention Advocate, Highest Leader Accountable For Ethics, Accountability Consistency Monitor, Ethics Dialogue Leader, Ethical Decision-Making Coach, and Ethical Culture Builder.

The roles I’ve named include many different approaches to setting and monitoring expectations. They show just how broad the responsibilities of senior leaders are when it comes to ethical leadership:








These roles include a number of functional categories that require different skillsets. Take a moment to ask yourself this important question – “Are your senior leaders ready?”


Perspectives on a Future With COVID-19

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Due to the uncertainty and constant change we’re experiencing during the pandemic, every organization should be considering how to adapt to multiple COVID-19 scenarios. Global futurists have already provided us with a variety of possible global scenarios to use in our planning.

Based on data and global input, these robust scenarios will help us prepare for foreseeable outcomes. While we can’t “plan” in the traditional sense, we can imagine possible futures and how the work we do will be impacted by them.

Each organization on the list below provides a unique perspective on possible futures with COVID-19. The formats include a video overview, map and reports. Review these scenarios with your teams and answer the critical questions that follow.

Scenarios For a Future With COVID-19:

Scenarios Video, Institute For the Future

Pandemic Map, Institute For the Future

COVID-19 Scenarios, The Millennium Project

How COVID-19 is Changing the World: A Statistical Perspective, United Nations Statistics Division

Ask your team to help you answer the following questions:

  • How will we need to reimagine what we consider to be our “success” in each scenario?
  • How can we adapt our work to thrive in each possible scenario?
  • Where are our greatest risks and what can we do now to reduce them?

We could guess what’s going to happen, but we don’t need to. Hard-working global futurists have already done the work. Let’s use what they’ve learned to help us navigate the coming year.

10 Leadership Strategies For Thriving in 2021

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We are already at the end of a challenging year. So much of it has been a blur as we’ve scrambled to reinvent our work and daily habits to adapt to a persistent global pandemic. We are heading into 2021 knowing that our best-laid plans will be quickly undone without warning. How do we survive and thrive in such a risky and unpredictable environment?

“Simply put, we are wondering how to go about restarting the economy; repairing what was broken; and preparing ourselves to cope with a host of urgent social, environmental, demographic, and economic troubles.”

Blair Sheppard, Daria Zarubina, and Alexis Jenkins, Adapting to a New World, s+b

Leadership expectations have changed during the pandemic. During isolation, people have been scrutinizing the ripple effects of good and bad leadership decisions.

The good news is that we’ve learned some things as we navigated our challenges this year. Today I’m sharing 10 Leadership Strategies for Thriving in 2021 that span many different leadership roles. Implementing all of them well can propel us forward in the current high-visibility, high-stakes environment.

10 Leadership Strategies For Thriving in 2021

Our implementation of each of these 10 Leadership Strategies will be closely watched by constituents in the coming year. Addressing each of them carefully and plugging any gaps will prepare us for our best chance of success as we head into 2021.

1. Clearly Define Ethics to Guide Company-Wide Decisions

Tell people how you’ll be making ethical decisions. Don’t leave the process to chance.

“Great leaders are… defining the firm’s values concisely, so people have the clarity and guidelines to make decisions.”

Jane Stevenson in THE COVID-19 LEADERSHIP GUIDE, Korn-Ferry

2. Prioritize What Employees Need Most

Focus on what your employees need. They are the ones keeping the organization afloat and they need your support.

“It’s time for leaders to reevaluate how they are addressing culture, providing support to employees during the pandemic, and refining their strategies to retain employees in the new year.”

Marcel Schwantes, New Survey: What Leaders Must Do to Adapt and Succeed in 2021, Inc.

3. Run More Unusual “What-If” Cases

Think beyond expected scenarios to what else could happen. We’ve learned this year that ‘standard scenarios’ don’t help us navigate rapidly changing situations.

“While most business plans include typical financially related ‘what if’ scenarios, leaders should consider expanding it to include unusual ones.”

Tom Himmer, How to Develop a Business Plan for 2021, The Business Journals

4. Put Health and Safety First

Make sure that health and safety take priority over money in organizational decision making.

“The coronavirus has created a humanitarian crisis, becoming a serious threat to the most vulnerable populations in every community. Protecting the health and safety of employees, partners, and communities will be job one for leaders around the world during the coming months.”


5. Keep Priorities Crystal Clear

Share the top priorities of the organization and ask everyone to help achieve them.

“Disruptions inevitably lead to an overload of sometimes-contradictory information. In the worst cases, employees are being given unclear or incoherent priorities. That’s why a crystal-clear set of priorities matters in times of upheaval, but is so hard to achieve.”

Mary Mesaglio, Gartner, 4 Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption, Gartner

6. Create a Culture of Reciprocal Care

Build a people-friendly culture where people feel safe and protected.

“Cultivate a culture of reciprocal care where every person matters and each person’s welfare and dignity is respected and supported.”

Psychology Professor Laura Knouse and Leadership Studies Professor Gill Hickman, How Leaders Can Adapt in a COVID-19 World, UR Now

7. Get Employees Involved in Company Decisions

Open up decision making to the people who know the work challenges.

“Your employees want to feel like they have a voice in major company decisions, including what their future work arrangements might look like.”

Nicole Fallen, 6 Tips for Adapting Your Leadership Style in the Post-COVID World, US Chamber of Commerce

8. Exceed Customer Expectations

Aim higher. Doing what people expect you to do won’t be enough when other organizations are doing much more.

“How will my company adapt our resources to address customers’ current and future needs? What are coverage plans for servicing customers? The strongest leaders are determining how they can add more value and consistently over deliver.”

Sam Reese, Planning for 2021: 5 Key Questions Leaders Are Asking, Vistage

9. Be Willing To Reverse or Adapt Decisions

Show that new information and guidance leads to new decisions. Be willing to adapt decisions as things change.

“The emerging approach recognizes that in fast-changing environments, decisions often need to be reversed or adapted, and that changing course in response to new information is a strength, not a weakness.”

Jennifer Jordan, Michael Wade, and Elizabeth Teracino, Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions, Harvard Business Review

10. Integrate Brand, Culture and Ethics

Align your message and your actions. Gaps are easy to see and they damage your brand.

“A disconnect between what your organization values on the inside and how it is perceived on the outside can damage customer relationships. Customers have the ability—and the proclivity—to see if you are actually operating the way you say you are.” “Top leaders of the organization must take responsibility for driving alignment.”

Denise Lee Yohn, Want a Great Brand? Build a Great Culture, SHRM

Thriving in 2021 will require applying these 10 Leadership Strategies and continuing to adapt to the changing landscape of what “good leadership” means during COVID-19. We will need to focus on clear communication and finding ways to add value while honoring ethics, transparency, and trust.

Grateful For You

By Linda Fisher Thornton

During COVID-19, I have had to make sacrifices, but I have also had much to be grateful for. Here are some of the many people I’m grateful for this year:

  • the front-line workers who made sure we had food and supplies
  • the many health care professionals who managed our testing, treatments and care
  • the students who adapted to distanced learning and made the best of it under challenging circumstance
  • the educators who stayed committed to providing an inspiring education during a time when all the rules changed and everything had to be reimagined from the ground up
  • the parents who were overwhelmed with the responsibility for home learning and yet helped their children and teens move forward in their education
  • the family and friends who found new ways to stay connected and support one another safely during the pandemic

This message is for them:

‘Thank you for your commitment to helping us all move forward during this difficult time. I appreciate all you have done to make things better, in big and small ways. You made many sacrifices so that others could succeed. You inspire me to do more and be more by your example.”

Take a moment, in this season of giving thanks, to share a message of gratitude with someone who has inspired you during this challenging year.

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