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 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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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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The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. S. Lewis

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

It Guides Responsible Behavior

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

It Helps Prevent Ethical Mistakes

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

It’s Our Job 

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

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

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

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Ethics-Rich Leadership: Why We Need It

 

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Need Ethics-Rich Leadership?

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

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

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

What Does It Look Like In Action?

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

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

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

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

We need leaders who care about constituents.

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

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

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

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5 Sites for Globally Responsible Business Leadership

By Linda Fisher Thornton

It has become clear that a global economy requires more than local or regional thinking. Our information and commerce are globally connected. Our greatest human challenges are global and must be solved globally.

We are connected by a shared future, with one region’s success deeply connected to another’s success. Global changes tend to either move us forward together or backward together. What steps can we take now to adapt to major global change and become part of the solution? How do we create the future world we imagine?

These 5 sources are good resources for learning, reflection and conversation:

5 Sites For Globally Responsible Business Leadership

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The SDG Compass (A guide to aligning company strategies and measures with the SDGs)

Caux Roundtable Principles For Business

World Economic Forum, “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”

Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative

Together, these sources paint a picture of the future. It’s a future that requires global thinking and action. It’s a future where business leaders take global responsibility for their decisions and actions. It’s a future where we move the metrics on important measures of collective well-being. 

How do we get there? We decide to be part of the solution, and use these resources to plan our next steps. 

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Do Laws Set the Standard For Ethics?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

“Do Laws Set the Standard For Ethics?” may be a simple question, but the answer is complicated. They do and they don’t set the standard. 

Laws set the MINIMUM standard for ethical behavior. This is the level that I call the punishment threshold. If your behavior drops below this level, you will be fined, sanctioned, sent to jail, or otherwise punished. The reason there are punishments when laws are violated is because they are considered the rock bottom of what we should be able to expect from people. Obviously, we don’t want everyone behaving at this level. 

Ethical values set the OPTIMAL standard for ethical behavior. They define the desired behaviors – what we want people to do. Applying ethical values requires a broad understanding of our responsibilities and a willingness to take responsibility for our role in the workplace and society. 

No one should use “following laws” as a measure of their good citizenship. It’s ethical values that are the true measure of leaders and organizations.

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Yes, Leaders. Behavior Matters

By Linda Fisher Thornton

As leaders, we are expected to uphold the highest standards of ethical behavior, and that includes interpersonal behavior (HOW we get the results we get, and how our behavior impacts others).

This week I’m sharing a review of behaviors that are a “NO GO” for ethical leaders. Click on each link to learn about why the behavior is outside the bounds of ethical leadership.

Yes, Leaders. Behavior Matters

It is not okay to blame, name call, bully, threaten, or shame.

It is not acceptable to yell and use foul language.

It is not fine to get angry and attack people who disagree with us.

It is not okay to avoid information that conflicts with our beliefs.

It is not acceptable to exclude those who aren’t like us.

It is not okay to treat only certain people with respect.

It is not acceptable to damage relationships with our negative behavior.

It is never okay to skip learning because “we are already a leader.”

Isn’t It Obvious?

These reminders may seem obvious (yes, we learned them in Kindergarten), but don’t leave it to chance. Be sure your leaders are all on the same page about appropriate interpersonal behavior. Your employees, customers and communities will thank you.

Use this post as the basis for conversations about ethical interpersonal behavior in the workplace and beyond.

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Everyone is a Stakeholder at Some Level

By Linda Fisher Thornton

“Everyone is a stakeholder at some level, and all stakeholders are important. We should consider all stakeholders as we lead – those we serve, those we lead, the powerless, the silenced, the planet, and all of humanity.” 

I shared this insight in a previous post – it was an aha moment from a Tweetchat I guest-hosted on Leading With Ethics. To reflect on where you are in the journey to leading with the mindset that “everyone is a stakeholder at some level,” explore the answers to these important questions:

  • How am I adding value for customers, employees and partners?
  • What ripples am I creating on the global landscape?
  • If everyone followed my lead, would they be showing that all stakeholders are important, regardless of who they are or where they live?
  • How well do I consider the interests of stakeholders who aren’t at the table, including the planet?
  • Have I explored and conquered my own “inner terrain” well enough to manage my biases so that they don’t impact my leadership?

To accomplish the ideal of considering all stakeholders in even our smallest decisions, we’ll have to do more than just imagine the possibilities. We’ll need to do the work.

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4 Connected Trends Shaping the Future of Leadership

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Our understanding of good leadership is advancing. In this video, I describe 4 powerful trends that are increasing leadership expectations and shaping what leaders will need to be ready to handle in the future. 

These 4 trends shaping the future of leadership are connected and accelerating. They give us a clear picture of where we need to take our leadership. 

The greatest challenge leaders face is to keep up as the bar continues to be raised. At the rate expectations are increasing, it is clear that we will never “arrive.” We must be adaptable, open to developing new skill sets and mindsets, while at the same time staying true to the values of ethical leadership. 

Being open to learning makes or breaks our success as leaders.

Adaptability is no longer just a competitive advantage. It’s an ethical imperative. 

 

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Values Drive Business Success (But Only If They’re Clear and Applied)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey Executive Summary reported that according to responses from 7700 employed millennials from 29 countries, “the values that support long-term business success are people treatment, ethics, and customer focus. While people treatment, ethics, and customer focus may be the values that drive business success, that only works if they’re applied across the organization. Do people know what the values are? Are they evident in the everyday actions of leaders? Are they factored into daily decisions? 

Even if a company has clear values, applying them is not as easy as leaders might think. According to Gallup (2016), just 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day.  Leaders might think that values are self-explanatory, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s in the nitty-gritty application of values that people have deep questions. Here are two examples: 

A manager has been told to hire according to the company’s values and to meet or exceed all goals. The candidate that is most likely to improve the department’s chances of meeting goals is not always respectful to others. Which is more important?

An employee sees a disconnect between the company’s stated values and the actions of a new senior leader. Should she follow the stated values or the leader’s direction? 

Leaders must start the conversation and keep it open, model the application of stated values, clear up areas of confusion and use the company’s values to guide daily work. Then and only then will values be “powered up” to drive business success. The power of values is not in stating them on the website and glossy brochures – it’s in the much more difficult process of living them in our everyday choices.  

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Ethical Leaders See Their Choices Through All 7 Lenses

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


By Linda Fisher Thornton

I blogged a while back about the Critical Roles of the (Ethical) CEO. I realized later that these important ethical roles apply not just to CEOs, but also to all senior leaders in an organization. And if front line leaders don’t carry these roles throughout the organization, there will be gaps in the culture. 

An ethical culture will only happen if the leadership team is “All In.” 

We should prepare leaders to take on these 9 important roles, to help them be “All In” in the quest for ethical culture building: 

Critical Roles of the Ethical Leader

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

Ethical Culture Builder

Through these important roles, leaders communicate, model and coach ethical thinking and action. That process increases the ethical capability of the organization over time, protects it from problems, and keeps the work environment positive.

Is your leadership team “All In” in taking on these roles and championing ethics throughout the organization? Help each leader develop the skills and confidence to handle these important roles. 

Top 100 Leadership BlogNEW Leadership Webinars –  Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership!
6/8/17 – Communicating About Ethical Values: How To Talk About What Matters
7/11/2017 – Developing Leadership That Inspires

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Ethical Leaders See Their Choices Through All 7 Lenses

Includes case examples and questions.

 

Click the book cover for a preview.

 

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Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership®

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