Ethical Thinking For Challenging Times

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Yet many leaders try to unravel increasingly complex issues using the same thinking process they have always used. 

New Ethical Thinking Course

I am delighted to announce that I am partnering with the University of Richmond Robins School of Business to offer a new Executive Education course “Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses.”

 

University of Richmond Robins School of Business, Executive Education 

Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses: This course will develop your ethical thinking skills in 7 important dimensions, help you understand local and global issues in a broader context, and equip you to make ethical decisions with increased confidence.

May 22, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 pm

Register For the Course

 

Why We Need Ethical Thinking

To celebrate the new course, I wrote an article for the University of Richmond Robins School of Business Executive Education publication EXCEED! that includes recent research about Why We Need Ethical Thinking. 

Read the article

 

It’s time to update our thinking the same way we routinely update our computer’s software. We know that updating our software is necessary for efficiency, effectiveness and risk reduction. It’s time to admit that updating our thinking is even more important for the same reasons.

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Research: Moving Beyond Cause-and-Effect Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The traditional view of research in the U.S. has been that something has to be proven to a statistically significant degree using established research procedures. It should be able to be replicated to confirm that the results are accurate and true. The problem is that established research procedures generally call for isolating one thing at a time to prove cause and effect, but we live in a world of complex, connected systems.

“People don’t become systems thinkers because systems thinking is so cool; they do so because they discover that linear thinking won’t answer their questions. Linear thinking is cause-and-effect thinking.”

JIM OLLHOFF and MICHAEL WALCHESKI,MAKING THE JUMP TO SYSTEMS THINKING, TheSystemsThinker.com

Is an “Accurate” Study Possible? 

Researchers may pride themselves on accuracy using the current approach, but cause-and-effect thinking may still lead to mistakes. The traditional research thinking believes that if a study is accurate, we should be able to repeat it and get the same result. If we do, then the effect has been “proven.” The problem with this thinking is that if we try to prove something is or is not causing something else, we ignore important variables that limit both the accuracy and the usefulness of the results:

  • The context may change the outcome (and context isn’t factored in if we’re using cause-and-effect thinking)
  • Some effects happen only some of the time (a repeated study may result in different conclusions without either study being wrong)
  • There may be other impacting causes that were not studied that led to the outcome

Which Research Studies Are Reliable?

There are so many predatory publishers sharing fake research results (see this Yale link) that it is becoming harder to tell which studies are responsibly conducted. The results of research studies are used to make decisions that have a broad effect on society and any fraud in the process can cause harm. 

Complexity Can’t Be Ignored

Our understanding of DNA and genes has progressed to the point where we know that certain combinations of things can result in genes being switched “on” or “off.” According to the US National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference Article Can Genes Be Turned On and Off in Cells? “Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. This means that in addition to our external environment being impacted by many different changing systems at the same time, our internal environment is also made up of complex connecting systems that adapt to changing conditions.

Closed Loop Peer-Review System Can Block Innovation

Academics and professionals who are pressured to publish sometimes game the already flawed peer review systemThe research publishing system has built-in biases that are attracting increasing attention and some scholars believe that the peer review process by design can block innovative work. According to Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, “It takes significant reviewer agreement to have a paper accepted. One potential downside is that important research bucking a trend or overturning accepted wisdom may face challenges surviving peer review.” (Aaron E. Carroll, Peer Review: The Worst Way to Judge Research Except For All the Others, New York Times)

Can you ever isolate a cause and effect relationship when studying multiple connected and adapting systems? How can you test research more reliably before it is published? The current system of research and publication (a system with built-in hurdles that may block innovative thinking) is in need of innovative thinking. 

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Mindset or Competency: Which is More Important?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post will explore the interesting relationship between leadership mindset and competency. Which is most important? What happens to our leadership capability when our mindset is out of date? 

How we think about something impacts what we do about it. Nick Petrie, Center For Creative Leadership, writes in Vertical Leadership Development Part I that “In terms of leadership, the stage from which you are thinking and acting matters a lot. To be effective, the leader’s thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment.” 

An “Un-Fixed” Mindset

Keeping an open mind and adapting when new information is available is important for our leadership success. Capability, or what we can do, is still important, but it won’t get us far if we’re using an outdated mindset. Our mindset needs to be upgraded regularly as the context changes or we risk missing important parts of the picture.

“Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s mental maps, their theories, expectations, and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood.”

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, The Neuroscience of Leadership, strategy + business

Seeing From Multiple Perspectives

In Coaching Vertically, Jan Rybeck MCC writes that one of the significant elements important for vertical development is taking on the challenge of multiple perspectives. Besides helping us deal with complexity in general, being able to understand multiple perspectives helps us meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. It guides us to better decisions when we face difficult choices. It helps us navigate tricky issues that have many angles and helps us talk about them without rushing to take a side.

“The future of leadership is mindsets, not competencies.”

Charles Palus, Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, Vertical Leadership Development For a Complex World

We need to carefully look at mindset, world view and assumptions before we move great individual performers into leadership positions. Sherryl Demitry, PhD writes in Training Industry that “it is common for people to be promoted into higher levels before achieving the vertical proficiency to be effective and successful at that level” (Disrupting Best Practices in L&D: Differentiating Horizontal & Vertical Development). Think about a time you observed a new leader using the mindset of a professional and making rookie leadership mistakes.

Mindset Problems Can Lead to Leadership Failure

When we broaden our mindset to adapt to change, we open up new terrain for learning and leadership. Gaining new competencies without the necessary mindset changes will be ineffective at best, and may even be harmful.  Think about a leader using an outdated mindset about human rights and treating certain groups of people negatively. That leader may “delegate effectively” in terms of how assignments are communicated and tracked, but may deny certain types of people access to opportunities to grow. This failure in leadership is due to a mindset problem that can quickly turn a “competency” like delegation into unfair practice.

I would have to say that leadership mindset is more important than competency. If you lack certain competencies or have the wrong competencies for the job, you can learn. If you have a “fixed” and outdated mindset, however, you will resist learning and potentially do more harm than good. 

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They’re Trying to Tell Us Something

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Since I started researching ethical leadership, I have begun to notice just how many different people are trying to steer us in the right direction. Their ethical messengers cross geographic and time boundaries and professions. The messages they leave are compelling. They are trying to tell us something important.

The messages are packaged in a multitude of different ways including books, music, quotes and stories. People who have realized important insights about ethics are leaving a trail for others to follow. But to follow, we have to notice.

Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and other ethical sages don’t have an “exclusive” when it comes to ethical wisdom. There are many more recent messengers. Popular songs engage us in learning about how bullies harm and how each person should be respected. Dr. Seuss wrote about human rights and sustainability in The Sneetches and Other Stories and The Lorax. Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai and many, many others have imparted wisdom to us about what it means to live ethically.

“I want to thank all of you out there who have been brave enough to walk point and force change. To fight for basic human rights that…my son’s generation and the generations to follow will so greatly benefit from.”             

—Sally Field Quoted by Human Rights Campaign, HRC.org

When you’re “tuned in” to something, you tend to notice it more frequently. This week, notice the ethical messages around you. Look for the trail of breadcrumbs left by people who have struggled and learned and advanced their understanding of the human condition and ethics.

Each of us has a part to play in creating a better world. Once we begin to notice the trail of breadcrumbs, we can look for clues to see where that trail is leading us.

Questions For Reflection

  1. Where in the course of my day am I noticing messages about our human responsibilities to each other?
  2. What can I learn from the messengers?
  3. How can I help spread the word?

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16 Answers To What is Good Leadership?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The theme I noticed in the most viewed posts on this blog in 2018 was Looking For a Better Kind of Leadership. Google reported that the most popular Google searches in 2018 were about how we can be good people. It sounds like it’s a great time to explore the question “What is Good Leadership? 

While it’s tempting to over simplify leadership and think about it as any one thing, good leadership can only be fully understood by thinking about it in multiple ways. Here is a starter list of 16 defining characteristics of good leadership:

  1. Purposeful

  2. Ethical 

  3. Intentional

  4. Thoughtful

  5. Meaningful

  6. Respectful

  7. Caring

  8. Open

  9. Invites Dialogue

  10. Globally Responsible

  11. Up-to-Date

  12. Trustworthy

  13. Culturally Inclusive

  14. Ethically Inspiring

  15. Embraces and Adapts To Context and Complexity

  16. Continual Learner

This list of 16 is designed to get you thinking. There are many more characteristics we could add. Think about great leaders you’ve had in the past (or not). What defining characteristics of good leadership would you add to this list? Share your ideas in the comments!

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Beyond Civility

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Civility seems like a minimum standard or a fallback position, certainly not a desired end. We expect so much more from ethical leaders.

Without civility, communication is chaotic and difficult (if not impossible). Civility adds choosing words more carefully and avoiding blaming and attacking others. When I think about people “being civil” I get a picture of people who don’t like each other very much struggling to maintain their composure.

The origin of the word and its uses are interesting.

“The word civil has about twelve different meanings; it is applied to all manner of objects, which are perfectly disparate. As opposed to criminal, it means all law not criminal. As opposed to ecclesiastical, it means all law not ecclesiastical: as opposed to military, it means all law not military, and so on.” [John Austin, “Lectures on Jurisprudence,” 1873] https://www.etymonline.com/word/civil

Extrapolating on this definition, perhaps civil interpersonal behavior is “all behavior not criminal.” I advocate Civility, but not as an ideal. Just as law is the minimum standard of acceptable individual behavior in a society (below which you are punished) civility seems to be the minimum standard of interpersonal behavior (so as not to get in trouble with the law). Use these posts to learn about the nuances of civility as an ethical issue.

Civility is an Ethical Issue

Civility and Openness to Learning

The Questions We Have in Common

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Your Culture is Not A Secret (So Protect Your Ethics)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

One of my favorite concepts for understanding how social media is changing the visibility of organizational culture is Trendwatching.com’s report Glass Box Brands. As Trendwatching.com eloquently explains, “In an age of radical transparency, your internal culture is your brand.” The key point I take away from this important report is that we can no longer assume that our culture is private. In fact, it’s completely public and it defines our brand. Any barriers that used to protect our culture from the public eye have vanished.

With nothing standing between our culture and the public eye, if we want to protect our brand value, we need to carefully tend our culture. Since we know that our culture is no longer a secret, what does that mean in terms of ethical culture building? That means our ethical choices define our ethical brand value. If we don’t carefully tend our ethical culture, we could develop a bad ethical reputation.

Today I’m sharing some of my favorite posts about how to build and protect an ethical culture:

5 Reasons Ethical Culture Doesn’t Just Happen

Every Decision Changes the Ethical Culture Equation

Leaders Are Culture Caretakers: 10 Actions For Success

5 Signs Your Culture is Failing

40 Ethical Culture Gaps to Avoid

40 Ways to Build an Ethical Culture (An Ethical To Do List)

7 Questions For Ethical Culture Building

13 (Culture-Numbing) Side Effects of Toxic Leadership

How to Build an Ethical Culture

We’re going to need a plan. We need to respond with urgency to this new inside-out culture transparency that brings our ethical choices into clear view. 

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Thinking Beyond Polarities To Both/And Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In this video, Michael DePass of CCL gives a brief introduction to polarity thinking and how it affects our communication and relationships with others. 

Polarity Thinking Risks and Limitations

Thinking in an either/or way about a problem that has multiple sides/variables/perspectives limits our effectiveness. That kind of thinking:

  • Won’t help us solve complex problems
  • Can lead to “stuck” thinking and stalemate
  • Can lead to arguing and conflict
  • Compounds misunderstandings (potentially leading to irreconcilable differences)

Moving Beyond Polarities

To move beyond seeing just one pole/side of an issue, we need to learn to see the world a different way. We will need to:

  • See more than one perspective as important in understanding issues
  • See that more than one perspective can be “true” at the same time in the broader context
  • Understanding that polarities can be connected and interdependent

In a complex, connected global society it’s critically important to get past thinking in either/or terms. Use the resources below to learn how to see and move beyond polarities to get the bigger picture.

Links and Resources

Are You Facing a Problem ? Or a Polarity? CCL

Using Polarity Thinking to Achieve Sustainable Positive Outcomes, Laurie Levknecht, RN

Polarity Resource Portal, Polarity Partnerships

The Power of Polarity Thinking in Leadership, Margaret Seidler

Polarity thinking is about managing two poles that are both true and interdependent. When you’re ready to move to kaleidoscopic thinking, read the book 7 Lenses to learn how to see through 7 important perspectives that are all critically important for our collective future.

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500th Post: Index to 500 Articles on Authentic Ethical Leadership

 

By Linda Fisher Thornton

There are many ways to define “ethical leadership” but there is increasing global interest in learning “ethical leadership” in a holistic and authentic way. This authentic ethical leadership takes us beyond laws and regulations, beyond respect for others and beyond traditional definitions of a business “win.” It generates a positive leadership legacy and a better shared future. If this sounds like the kind of leadership you want to learn, you’ve come to the right place.

The Leading in Context Blog now includes 500 articles on high-level, holistic and global ethical leadership. This blog started off as a way to organize and share emerging research in my leadership classes.  Ten years later it has become a “go-to” site for organizational leaders across industries, university professors and seekers looking for a better way to lead. 

To celebrate having published 500 Posts over 10 years, I’ve shared a short video on one of my favorite reader questions – “What were you thinking including Profit (which has no moral grounding) in a model of ethical leadership? 

To help you on your ethical leadership learning journey, this Milestone post also includes a Leading in Context Blog Index.  What will you find? Every post published on the Leading in Context Blog since 2009, in date order with the newest posts first. If there is something you want to learn about ethical leadership, it is probably here. If it isn’t, post a comment to let me know what YOU want to learn more about. 

Do you want to understand how all of the ethical leadership concepts in these posts fit together? I distilled several years of intensive research into 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership, a clear guide to “seeing” ethical issues in seven important dimensions that apply across industries and geographic boundaries. Looking through all 7 Lenses you have a clear line of sight to making ethical choices and leading authentically for the long term. 

Enjoy the lifelong learning journey to ethical leadership… 

The Leading in Context Blog Index

 

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Respect, Interpreted Part 1

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I believe that respect is a key structural beam supporting the organizational “house.” Without it, trust falls, productivity falls, engagement drops and turnover increases. It becomes harder to attract top talent for open positions in organizations where respect is not a minimum standard. Without respect, an organization’s culture becomes structurally unsound and devolves into “a house of cards” at risk of many negative impacts beyond those mentioned here. 

With respect as a minimum standard for which people are held accountable, an organization creates a “positive shield’ that deflects a wide range of negative interpersonal behaviors. If we require respect, for example, then discourages a wide range of negative behaviors including judging, blaming, name-calling or excluding.

By requiring respect as the MINIMUM standard, we are creating a preventive and protective shield that protects the organization’s culture. 

Think of what happens to a house when a structural beam is removed. It collapses in on itself. That is what begins to happen to organizational culture the moment a single word or action that is disrespectful is “approved” through silence. Why is silence considered approval? Thomas Paine famously said “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” When leaders look the other way, they are on the path to making a disrespectful act appear “right” whether that was intended or not. Granted, talking about respect is difficult and we don’t have clear instructions for how to build a culture of respect. Or do we? Stayed tuned for Respect, Interpreted Part 2.

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Ground Rules for Talking About Controversial Topics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

CHARACTER

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

TEMPERAMENT

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

JUDGMENT

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

INCLUSION

  • Consider all humans equally important with equal rights

CARE

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

CONSTITUENT – AWARENESS

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

LONG-TERM IMPACT

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

EXPLORING MULTIPLE VARIABLES

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

USING A SYSTEMS APPROACH

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

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

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3 Steps For Dusting Off Your Leadership in the New Year

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

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

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

3 Steps For Dusting Off Your Leadership In The New Year

 

1. Assess Your Ethics

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

2. Pick an Area To Dust Off

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

3. Learn Deeply, Sweeping Away Outdated Thinking

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

Be Alert For These Possible Side Effects

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

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

Get started now!

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Top Post Series of 2018: Leading in Context Blog

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

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

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

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 1)

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

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 2)

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

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 3)

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

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 4)

“Leaders are ethical brand value ambassadors.”

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 5)

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

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

 

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Systems Thinking: Using the 5 Whys

By Linda Fisher Thornton

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

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

Using the 5 Whys

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

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

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

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

How To Use This Technique

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

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

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Top 10 Posts 2018: Leading in Context Blog

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Of the 52 individual posts published on the Leading in Context Blog in 2018, these 10 were the most popular. See if you notice a theme that connects these new topics that readers accessed most frequently:

29 Flawed Assumptions About Leadership

70 Trends to Watch in 2019

Are You Leaving a Positive Legacy? (10 Questions Across 5 Dimensions)

Lead With Questions, Not Answers

22 Resources For Developing Ethical Thinking

Seeing the Nuances of Ethical Leadership (A Developmental Model)

Dealing With Complexity? Use Ethical Thinking (Guest Post)

TAP Into Trust With These 12 Principles

50 Trends to Follow in 2018

Fear is a Poor Advisor (Moving us Away From Ethical Thinking to Protect Us)

If I had to pick a theme for these posts that were most popular in 2018, it would be Looking For a Better Kind of Leadership. 

 Which post was your favorite? If you have ethical leadership topics you want to learn more about, comment on this post, or tweet your idea to @leadingincontxt!

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