The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Part 3)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical Thinking and Decision Making require staying grounded in ethical values, but there is much more to do than knowing our values and living them every day through our choices. In Part 1 of this series, I explored the Depth of our thinking, and in Part 2, I broke down issues related to understanding Context. In Part 3, let’s take a look at Complexity.

Embracing Complexity is Part of Leadership

Complexity has become a way of life. To make ethical decisions, we must embrace it and incorporate it into our thinking processes. That means digging into issues until we understand their multiple dimensions, connections, and contradictions. It means being intentional about decision making and avoiding making snap judgments.

Leaders who develop a high level of thinking complexity will be better able to help our organizations understand and work through a wide variety of challenges, problems, and opportunities. They will make sense of issues and problems that are multidimensional and connected. And they will be prepared to do what all great leaders do – help those they lead deal with increasing complexity.

         — Linda Fisher Thornton, Dealing With Complexity in Leadership 

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Don’t Do

  • Use oversimplified approaches to understanding complex issues
  • Ignore the complexity of an issue because “it’s too hard to figure out.”
  • Fall into the trap of only noticing data that conveniently backs up their current beliefs

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Do

  • Ethical thinkers and leaders know that complexity is part of the leadership sphere and they embrace it 
  • They look for, notice, and talk about complexity
  • They work to find clear and compelling ways to communicate complex issues so that others can understand them

When we ignore complexity, many around us can easily see that we are not operating in reality. They can see that we’re not taking informed action and not solving problems in responsible ways. By embracing complexity, we stay on the path that leads to ethical solutions that work in the real world.

Stay tuned for Part 4 in this series! 

Dealing With Complexity? Use Ethical Thinking


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©2019 Leading in Context LLC

What Happens When You Ignore Complexity?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ignoring complexity reduces the number of variables considered in a decision. That may seem convenient (see last week’s post) but it also removes the nuanced thinking that is necessary for ethical decision-making. With all the information available in a socially connected world, it is easy to fall victim to the quick oversimplified understanding of issues. This “quick glance” way of gathering information doesn’t reveal the breadth and depth of what’s really going on.

“The contemporary context also reflects the fact that issues associated with access to information and with technology may enhance the temptation and ease of making unethical choices.”

Mark Winston, The Complexity of Ethical Decision Making, Information Ethics

Basing decisions on “quick glance” information gathering is not just uninformed and unwise, it can be harmful. It is definitely in a leader’s best interest to learn about the nuances and avoid the temptation to make a quick potentially unethical decision. Here are some ways that removing complexity can get us into deep ethical trouble:

  • Without acknowledging complexity, we may only look at the variables we already understand and ignore others that are critical to the decision
  • Without acknowledging complexity, we may only look at the short-term impact and ignore the long-term risks
  • Without acknowledging complexity. we may decide only based on self-interest and personal gain
  • Without acknowledging complexity, we may leap into something that does more harm than good
  • Without acknowledging complexity, we may quickly show our ignorance to others who took the time to understand the nuances
  • Without acknowledging complexity, we may make our own job harder by creating more problems than we solve

We can’t simply review one or two articles that reinforce our own beliefs about an issue and make an ethical decision. It takes more effort than that to understand the variables. Who are the constituents? What are their needs and goals? What is the presenting problem? Is that a symptom of a bigger problem? Do we understand that bigger problem and how the two are connected? If we try to fix a symptom without addressing the cause how will that make things worse? What other global issues and trends impact this problem? How? What are the most ethical options given all of the connected variables? 

“Solving a problem” without understanding the context is like changing individual notes in a song without considering the effect on the song. The result can be a meaningless mess. 

Here’s the key point – There is no good leadership without ethical thinking and ethical thinking requires digging into the nuances of complex issues. In a global society, our problems are connected in intricate boundary-spanning ways. Globally, we have the thinking power to untangle our complex problems and make the best choices. We just need to choose to use it. 


Special Series Celebrating the 2nd Printing of 7 Lenses

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 1)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 2)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 3)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 4)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 5)


Top 100 Leadership Blog  

©2018 Leading in Context LLC




450th Post: Leaders, Why You Need Disequilibrium (Part 1)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This is the 450th Post on the Leading in Context Blog! In case you missed it, here is the 400th Post: The Journey to Meaning (Growth Required).

Disequilibrium is the sense of imbalance we feel as we deal with increasing complexity and change. This post, the first in a series, starts by exploring why leaders need to embrace it.

Avoiding Disequilibrium Is Harmful

Disequilibrium is not harmful to our leadership, unless we try to avoid it. That can cause us to retrench when change demands that we adapt.

“In today’s business world, change is inevitable. And if you’re only striving for equilibrium — which is all but impossible — you will merely continue doing the same thing, year after year, as the world moves on.”

Today’s Leaders Must Learn To Thrive In Disequilibrium,

If we try to avoid disequilibrium, we focus our attention backward, on returning to some “steady state” in the past instead of adapting forward.

Equilibrium Should Never Be Our Goal

We cannot return complex situations or systems to “normal” due to the rate of catastrophic change. “Normal” has become a perpetually moving target, never pausing long enough for us to get a good look. Understanding that equilibrium should never be our goal helps us make better leadership choices.

“Leadership is about knowing what the range is and managing others through the range of acceptable disequilibrium.”, The Range of Acceptable Disequilibrium

It helps for us to think about disequilibrium as a necessary part of leadership. It helps us grow and support others as they deal with change. Accepting disequilibrium as “the way things are” (and not something to be avoided) is important for successful leadership.

Ask yourself these questions about how well you’re dealing with disequilibrium:

  1. When do I avoid complexity and try to return situations to “normal?”
  2. How well am I handling the discomfort caused by disequilibrium?
  3. Do I routinely look backward or adapt forward?

Watch for the second post in this series, coming soon!


Special 5 Post Series Celebrating the Second Printing of 7 Lenses

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 1)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 2)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 3)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 4)

Why Ethical Thinking Matters (Part 5)


Top 100 Leadership Blog  

©2018 Leading in Context LLC


8 Posts (And a Trend Report) On Global Thinking


By Linda Fisher Thornton

As leaders, we do not operate in isolation. We are part of a busy global marketplace with a global economy and global communication. Because we are part of a larger global community, we need to think carefully about how our choices impact that broader community. Just as a butterfly flapping its wing in one side of the world impacts the weather on the other side, small decisions we make as leaders have ripple effects on the global economy and on the well-being of individuals, environments and societies.

This week, I decided to corral a collection of posts that help us understand ethical leadership in a global context. Ethical leaders think about their responsibilities on a global scale. Using global thinking helps us succeed in a connected economy and a global society. As you read these posts about global thinking in leadership, consider how using global thinking could transform your organization’s leadership.

8 Posts on Global Thinking

Here are 8 Leading in Context® Blog posts (and a trend report) that will help you get into the global leadership mindset:

  1. Redefining Ethical Leadership in a Global Society illustrates how our level of connected information illuminates global ethical issues.
  2. Developing Globally Responsible Leaders describes the thinking process of a globally responsible leader.
  3. Twitter Helps Leaders Think Global discusses how embracing social media helps us build a global mindset.
  4. Collaborative Leadership in a Global Society describes what collaborative leaders do.
  5. Ethical Leadership and…a Global Society explores ethical leadership trends in a global context.
  6. Global Ethics and Integrity Benchmarks describe the ethical qualities that customers, suppliers, partners and job-seekers will be looking for in your organization.
  7. C-Suite Leaders: Are You Using the Global Principles of Responsible Business? provides information about the Caux Roundtable Principles for Responsible Business.
  8. Shared Ethical Values: Global Consensus? explores whether or not there are universally shared global values.

And a Global Trend Report

You may also find Global Trends for 2013: A Top Ten for Business Leaders ( to be an interesting read.

“Thinking global” is:

  • a critical ability for the leader of the future
  • a way to understand our leadership responsibilities on a global scale
  • a way to make ethical choices that work in a global society.

Global thinking is emerging as a critical ability that the leader of the future must have. Are we ready?


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 


Compliance With Laws Isn’t Ethical Leadership (There’s More)


By Linda Fisher Thornton

Beyond Compliance

I have intentionally avoided using the C-word (Compliance) in most of my posts, and I decided that it was time to explain why. In this post I’ll explain why laws are not enough, and why complying with laws does not mean that we are leading ethically.

Laws Are Not Enough

Many people equate compliance with ethics. Actually, compliance with laws is the minimum standard and does not adequately represent  “ethical leadership,” which is at a much higher level. Laws are the minimum threshold  – below which people are punished. When we settle for this level of ethics, we are simply working toward staying out of jail – and that is not enough to make us good corporate citizens.

Why is compliance with laws not enough when it comes to leading ethically? What else is there?

Here is an example that illustrates the broader responsibilities that ethical leadership includes. Which of these two views of ethical leadership do you think is the most ethical view?

‘Ethical Business’ Means Making as Much Money as I Can Without Going to Jail

If I tend to think in a win-lose way, then I may be more likely to seek gain for myself without concern for my impact on other stakeholders.

‘Ethical Business’ Includes the Responsibility to Respect and Serve 

If I tend to think in a win-win, service-focused way, then I may be more likely to seek positive solutions for others and consider my responsibilities to them more broadly.

Linda Fisher Thornton, Our Thinking is an Ethical Driver, Leading in Context Blog, December 12, 2012

Clearly, the second example demonstrates a higher level of ethical thinking and a broader sense of responsibility than the first. There are laws that say that I should not attack another person in the workplace. The ethical issues about how I need to treat others are at a much higher level than just restraint from physical violence. They include the need to respect others, demonstrate care and concern for them, and treat them with civility.

Learning Beyond Compliance 

Why don’t laws (that represent the “punishment threshold”) represent ethical leadership? Settling for compliance with laws might mean that we would not physically attack each other, but we may still be disrespectful in ways that erode trust and affect the well-being of employees, customers and other stakeholders.

If we focus just on compliance in our ethics training for leaders, we are aiming too low and we will always be scrambling to catch up as laws change. How can we move beyond just complying with laws (the minimum standard) to leading ethically in organizations (optimal)? These posts provide some guidance:

Developing Globally Responsible Leaders        Ethical Leadership Context

Developing the Ethical Leader of the Future

Instead of focusing on teaching leaders how to stay out of jail, let’s focus on teaching leaders what we want – the optimal level of ethical leadership.


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 


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