Leaders: Can You Control Ethics?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The question for today is “Can we control ethics?” Leaders have tried to control ethics with compliance-based systems (based on rules and penalties) but that does not tend to inspire people to ethical action. Leaders have tried to control ethics by running a tight ship, closely managing workers, but that does not bring out the best in people and may lead to workers not caring about protecting the company’s reputation. 

How Can We “Control” Ethics?

The catch about ethical performance and action are that they are driven by a performance system, and a system cannot be “controlled” in the literal sense. Systems are complex, and one action does not necessarily generate a particular desired reaction. In other words, the performance context and leadership matter greatly in the results a company will get. 

Thinking Drives Behavior

Another complicating factor in the ethical performance system is that thinking drives behavior. Ethical thinking is a competence that many leaders have not yet mastered, and the gap is evident in the headlines about ethical scandals in the news. We cannot let reflexive thoughts drive our choices or we may only look out for our own interests and ignore a wide array of complex ethical issues. 

Does Control Have Any Place in Ethics?

I do believe that control has an important place in an ethical system. I’m talking about the important role of self-control. Self-control can be thought of as a “moral muscle” that improves with practice, according to Roy F. Baumeister

“Philosophers and psychologists have been discussing the importance of self-control for ages. Plato, for example, argued that the human experience is a constant struggle between our desire and rationality, and that self-control is needed to achieve our ideal form.”  

Kai Chi (Sam) YamHuiwen LianD. Lance FerrisDouglas Brown, Leadership Takes Self-Control. Here’s What We Know About It, Harvard Business Review

When leaders try to “control” others to manage ethics, their efforts are misplaced. Only by controlling themselves and carefully managing the ethical performance system will they be supporting ethical choices and building an ethical organization. 

Ethical leaders model self-control, putting in the effort to make tough ethical choices instead of making easy unexamined decisions.

Ethical leaders control their thoughts, intentionally aligning decisions with ethical values.

Ethical leaders control their actions, taking care that those actions are ethical and appropriate.

Ethical leaders control their tongues, aligning what they say with respect, care and inclusion. 

Leaders who commit to continual learning will see that they must

  • Support continual learning and demonstrate it for others
  • Manage their own ethics carefully and set an example for others
  • Hire ethical people
  • Manage the ethical performance system carefully, aligning expectations, training and support, feedback and rewards with ethical values

These leadership actions help create the conditions for ethical success. It all starts with the leader demonstrating self-control. 

Top 100 Leadership Blog

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)



Wishing You Peace

The Peace Paradox

Extend Peace In Order to Receive It

In this Joyous Season, it seems like a good time to reflect on our leadership role in building peace and trust. Peace is one of those things that requires reaching out. Just as we must extend trust to receive it from others, we must also extend peace in order to receive it. When each side watches and waits for the other party to extend peace, they create a stalemate that is unresolvable…until someone takes the first step and reaches out.

Peace is More Than the Absence of Violence

What is peace? Below is the Wikipedia definition. Notice that this definition describes  multiple dimensions that go well beyond the absence of violence.

“Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict and the freedom from fear of violence. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the establishment of equality, and a working political order that serves the true interests of all. In international relations, peacetime is not only the absence of war or violent conflict, but also the presence of positive and respectful cultural and economic relationships.”


Peace is about much more than a lack of violence. It is about positive and respectful relationships. In order to resolve the “waiting for the other party to extend peace” stalemate, we must work toward peace even when that seems impossible. We cannot force it, but must tend it like a garden, nurturing good behaviors and weeding out those that generate dischord or show disrespect.

Reflecting On Leadership, Power and Collaboration

In The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner explains that force is not equivalent to power anymore:

“As we debunk long-standing myths and misconceptions about power, we can better identify the qualities powerful people should have, and better understand how they should wield their power. As a result, we’ll have much less tolerance for people who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force. No longer will we expect these kinds of antisocial behaviors from our leaders and silently accept them when they come to pass…We’ll also start to demand something more from our colleagues, our neighbors, and ourselves.”

Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox, GreaterGood.Berkeley.edu

One of my favorite books about how leaders can move from conflict to collaboration is Leading Through Conflict by Mark Gerzon. He provides a set of leadership capabilities that we can develop that help us move from wherever we are now to positive, collaborative relationships.

Peace is Something We Create

Peace is not something we simply hope for or wait for. It’s something that we create through our everyday actions and relationships. As we enter the New Year, may we all:

  • Be open to learning from others
  • Understand that power in leadership means humility, compassion and social intelligence, not force
  • Respect others and differences, and
  • Actively extend trust and peace

Extending Peace to You This Holiday Season

I hope that you enjoy the timeless quotes about peace that follow. Notice how they focus on individual action, mutual understanding  and individual responsibility.

Reflections On Peace

Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.

Thomas Jefferson

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
Mother Teresa

Those who are at war with others are not at peace with themselves.
William Hazlitt

Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.                                                                          Ralph Waldo Emerson

Peace is liberty in tranquillity.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        John Lennon

Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_peace2.html#Sem4THUdpjTlG5bc.99

Many thanks to all of you who have connected this year to share ideas about leading ethically in a complex world. Have a Joyful Holiday Season and a Happy New Year!

Linda Fisher Thornton is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. She is also CEO/Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world.  


For more, see new 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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


Ethical Leaders Care Part 2: In Action

Author’s Note: As a follow up to the October 5, 2011 post “Ethical Leaders Care”, this post explores what leading with care looks like in action.

Encouraging and Supporting Others is a Leader’s Job

It is our job as leaders to bring out the best performance each person has to offer. When we do that with care we make sure that we demonstrate care and respect for others and encourage each individual and group we lead to be the best that they can be.

Leadership is fundamentally about relationships and ethical behavior.  It’s about accomplishing the mission of the organizations we serve in ways that enhance trust and relationships with people and honor ethical principles. Caring for others and supporting their success is an important part of that responsibility.

What Does Care Look Like?

Caring as leaders includes not only leading with care but also building cultures where people treat each other with respect. Encouraging ethical behaviors in those we lead while handling complex problems is a continual challenge.

To make this responsibility easier, we need a shared understanding of what caring leadership looks like in action. To respond to that need, Leading in Context published a color graphic showing interpersonal behavior in three zones.  This color-coded graphic excerpt (originally shared with readers on April 27, 2011) provides a visual context for how leaders show they care in their day-to-day interpersonal behavior choices.

I’m hoping that this graphic generates broader conversations about responsible and appropriate interpersonal behavior. Early feedback has been very positive, with readers saying that they see this as a starting rubric for talking about expected interpersonal behavior.

A leader using this graphic could explain it to a work team by saying “Behaviors in the green zone are what we want you to do, the yellow zone means “caution” and the red zone behaviors have no place in our workplace.”


For more, see new 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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
 Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses 
© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 

Leaders & Social Media: 5 Reasons to Engage

Leaders and Information Overload

In today’s world of work, we have to

  • keep up with an overwhelming amount of information
  • scan trends and forecasts and
  • incorporate the needs of multiple stakeholders into workable solutions.

Our job is to make sense out of it all in order to make work life easier for those we lead. Since the world changes fast, we have to learn just as fast… and share it fast with our employees…and then adapt to what we’ve learned. Social media has become the fastest information media available, tackling emerging issues long before mainstream publications do.

Five Important Reasons to Engage in Social Media

1.  Not Embracing Social Media is a Risk

In today’s world that is connected at light speed, refusing to adapt to new communication channels means choosing to be out of the loop.  I am able to say this with confidence because I almost missed the social media information wave. Two and a half years ago I said out loud (quite confidently) “I’ll never go on Twitter.” My patient technology and learning advisor  Allison, said “Didn’t you say you were blogging?” I confirmed that yes, I was blogging. What she said next changed my understanding of social media and information. She said “People are organizing and accessing their blog subscriptions on Twitter using their smart phones. How will they find you?”

2.  Social Media Helps Us Adapt

While some people still think that social media is one more thing to add to their to-do list that they don’t have time for, I now know that social media is a great tool for keeping up with changes in the world, changes in my customer’s needs, changes in the emerging knowledge across disciplines, and changes in how we define leadership and learning.

Social media is much more than “one more thing to do” –  it’s how we do what we do in an information-connected society – and it’s an efficient filter for finding relevant information.

Searching social media platforms using multiple search terms, we can quickly access the intersection of any two, three or more fields. Learning something completely new at that intersection helps us expand our thinking, makes our work better, helps us serve our customers better, and helps our work be more relevant in today’s business context.

3. The Newest Information is Freely Shared There First

A lot of people are trying to make sense out of the sea of information.

They are sharing what they’ve learned so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

They are sharing so that we can solve global problems together.

I am a social media convert who is enjoying getting insights about new research and feedback on my work from people around the globe. Social media channels shorten my research time, help me be better at what I do, and keep me in close touch with my customers, clients and readers.

4. It’s a Learning Connection to the “Global Brain”

We can even think about social media as a conduit to the “global brain.” Dean Pomerleau, a researcher at Intel labs Pittsburgh links Twitter to brain research on his blog ‘Thoughtful Cog” in a post called “Twitter and the Global Brain.”

Imagine a Twitter user as a neuron.  He/she makes the equivalent of a synapse with each of his/her followers.  When a Twitter user sends out a tweet, it is the equivalent of a neuron firing.  Followers who receive the tweet decide whether to propagate the activity by retweeting the message, in a sense by deciding whether they too should fire in response to the tweet…

On a macro scale, this will represent the equivalent of thoughts emerging in the Global Brain, in the form of rapid, coordinated firing of millions of these virtual neurons.  These thoughts will propagate and potentially trigger other thoughts in the network.

5. It’s a Hub Connecting You to the Meaningful Information You Need

Social media is really a hub that connects you to the information you need, not in a random sense, but in a way that has meaning. Whatever topic has piqued your curiosity is likely being studied by somebody else somewhere in the world. Other people who are curious about what you’re curious about have already researched it and are recommending the next article or book or blogger that you can learn from.

Social media is more than just noise, and doesn’t have to add to information overload. Its connections and knowledge-sharing help us cut through the ocean of information out there so that we can learn and grow. Those connections help us understand this global community that we find ourselves a part of.

Have you jumped into the social media information wave yet?



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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
 Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses 
© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 

Leadership and…the Cascade Stress Effect




The Toxic Stress of Controlling Leadership

If we use fear-based leadership, bullying, command-and-control leadership, belittling, sabotage or other forms of psychological violence, or allow them to be used by others in our organizations, we create the opposite of a supportive, productive learning organization. We create an environment of toxic stress that harms people and the organization.

Controlling leadership behaviors set off a cascade effect in organizations that looks like this:

  • We create a toxic, constantly stressful environment
  • which reduces people’s ability to learn and remember
  • and think creatively.
  • We get fear-based compliance
  • without engagement
  • which leaves people not doing their best work.
  • We get a low-trust culture
  • which leads to
  • people spending time worrying
  • individually and in groups.
  • We get poor individual
  • and group performance
  • and poor business outcomes.
  • We reduce the capacity of the business
  • to accomplish its mission
  • through people.
Detailed research about the impact of stress on health, the brain, learning, memory and performance may be found at many websites including the following:
Articles explaining the negative effects of controlling leadership on the organization include:

Center for Creative Leadership white paper exploring the impact of workplace stress on leaders: StressofLeadership.pdf


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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
  About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 

Food Ethics: The Delicate Balance of Nature and Nutrition

© Microsoft

The Delicate Balance of Nature and Nutrition

We are learning through research that nutrition is more complex and delicately balanced than we had thought. Changing foods or using only part of a food that we think of as healthy may change the health benefits drastically.

Savvy consumers today tend to look for whole foods that have the natural health benefits that our bodies need.

The food industry is adapting by removing chemical additives and incorporating more whole grains back into foods:

The Food and Drug Administration is making changes to food safety laws that many consider to be long overdue. I noticed that school lunches got a major overhaul this year:

Whole Foods Provide Benefits Not Found in the Parts

What happens when you remove part of a food? It turns out that there are nutritional benefits in the whole food that are not gained from eating parts of the food.

Here is an interesting example of what happens when you remove the husk from grains of rice:

  • whole brown rice (lower glycemic index – 55) (gluten free) (whole grain)
  • white rice (which is whole brown rice with the fibrous husk removed) –  (higher glycemic index – 64)(may not be gluten free due to contents in sprayed-on vitamins to add vitamins back)

Linus Pauling Institute at the University of Oregon

“Is white rice gluten free…?” at Yahoo.com

The Simple Answer: It’s Whole for a Reason

When food is consumed in its natural whole state, it seems to include necessary factors that regulate the body, prevent disease and regulate weight. When it is altered to appeal to consumer tastes or to increase profits, the negative health impact appears to be dramatic.

Altered foods (such as the brown rice/white rice example) increase the body’s glycemic load. Higher glycemic load is implicated in diabetes and obesity among other health problems that are currently escalating.

Several lines of recent scientific evidence have shown that individuals who followed a low-GI diet over many years were at a lower risk for developing both type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease than others. High blood glucose levels or repeated glycemic “spikes” following a meal may promote these diseases by increasing oxidative stress to the vasculature and also by the direct increase in insulin levels.[11]   “Glycemic Index” – Wikipedia

According to this study, whole foods take more energy to digest and eating whole foods burns more calories than eating processed foods:

Should We Consider Altered Food (Without the Health Benefits of Whole Food) to Be “Food”?

Three questions that we should ponder…

  1. Should “food” by definition only include food from nature that has not been changed?
  2. Should “food” by definition have to include all of the parts that came from nature?
  3. Should “food” by definition be healthful for humans?

For More Information

Center for Science in the Public Interest






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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
  About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 

Ethical Leadership: C-Suite Problems Should Be Corrected Quickly

What Would You Call These C-Suite Behaviors?

The title of the list below could be “Ethical Leadership Problems” or it could just as easily be “Things to do in Order to Ensure That Your Business Will Fail.” Are any senior leaders in your organization doing any of these things?
  • Failing to stay current in a professional field
  • Refusing to listen to company employees
  • Violating company leadership standards, but asking others to meet them
  • Making decisions without seeking input
  • Skipping training required of other company-wide leaders
  • Asking employees to do work you are not willing to do

Why Does C-Suite Behavior Matter So Much?

C-Suite behavior matters because people do what they see the senior leaders do. If employees see dysfunctional behaviors among senior leaders, they assume that there is complete acceptance of those dysfunctional behaviors throughout the organization and see it as a “green light” for them to use those same behaviors whenever they like.

Why Aren’t C-Suite Problems Dealt With Quickly?

It is definitely uncomfortable to talk with a senior leader about behaviors that are bad for the organization. That discomfort can lead to delaying the conversation until the situation has gotten out of hand.

The “green light” that employees “see” that may lead them to use negative behaviors when a senior leader does can cause those problems to spread like a virus until you have moved from one C-Suite leader using dysfunctional behaviors to an entire organization using dysfunctional behaviors.

Don’t wait.

Want to Learn More?

Lessons From Team Fumbles: How senior leadership teams can make-or break-an organization by Susan Lucia Annunzio, chiefexecutive.net

In the article Why Do Businesses and Leaders Fail? Dan McCarthy references Jim Collin’s book “Why the Mighty Fall” and discusses more destructive leadership behaviors that can lead to business failure.


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 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2011 Leading in Context LLC 

%d bloggers like this: