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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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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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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A Message About Togetherness

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In What is Meaningful Leadership Part 5 I wrote about building a better society together for future generations. When I really stop to think about what it means to live and work together, here are some of the things that come to mind:

  1. Together can imply simply being side by side or near others, but there is much more to its meaning when we live in a globally connected society.
  2. Together in a global society includes living in ways that enhance other people’s lives.
  3. Together in a global society includes standing up for fairness and inclusion even when taking that stand is difficult or unpopular.
  4. Together in a global society means caring about what happens to others – all others, regardless of who they are and where they come from.
  5. Without a global world view, “together” can be reduced to meaning “us and whoever else is along for our ride.”
  6. Life is better when we lead as if global togetherness matters.

During this holiday season, take time to reflect on how you are called to enable and amplify global togetherness.

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MindTools Expert Interview Podcast With Linda Fisher Thornton

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Happy #GlobalEthicsDay2018! I recently did an interview with Rachel Salaman for the MindTools Expert Interview Podcast.  We had a lively conversation about ethical leadership and how to leverage the concepts from my book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership

Click on the graphic below to read the MindTools blog post by Rachel Salaman and listen to an excerpt from the podcast. In the excerpt, I walk you through a typical business problem using the 7 Lenses of Ethical Responsibility to show the power of this 7-dimensional model for revealing ethical issues and nuances. 

 

 

 

 

Now it’s your turn. Apply the 7 Lenses to one of your daily challenges to see if it’s a game changer for you. Use this overview of the model to guide you. Feel free to share what you learned. Follow @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses  to make ethical insights part of your daily learning journey. 

It’s Global Ethics Day and we can create better workplaces and a better future. Let’s get started. 

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70 Trends to Watch in 2019

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Each year I curate a list of sites that write about trends that will change how we do business in the coming year. This year’s list includes some ongoing trends from last year and some fresh ideas and new directions. Take a look at the 70+ trends at the links below and start getting ready for what’s ahead!

The Future of Retail, Trendwatching.com

4 Mega-Trends That Could Change the World By 2030, World Economic Forum

2019 Strategic Trends Glossary, Educause

Food Industry Forecast: Key Trends Through 2020, Emerson

John Hall, 5 Marketing Trends to Pay Attention to in 2019, Forbes

Diana Smith, These Tech Trends Will Dominate in 2019, Leader-Values.com

Business Trends That Will Reshape Your World in 2019, fastincnow

7 Digital Marketing Trends That Will Own 2019, SocialReport

Lisa White, The Vision 2019: The most influential macro trends for next year, WGSN

The State of Play, Trendwatching.com

Keep an eye on these trends in the coming months and take time to discuss what they could mean for your business. With change accelerating, having a plan for adaptation will be key. 


To learn how to adapt your leadership to increasing global expectations, read 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.

 

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Our Evolving Frame of Reference

By Linda Fisher Thornton

As we weathered a hurricane on the East Coast, I remembered the uncharacteristic earthquake that affected Virginia a few years ago. That experience changed how I interpreted the world around me. It drew attention to why we all see the world in such different ways.

I was in a warehouse store shopping for a gift, and I noticed that the table in front of me was shaking. If this had happened at any other time, I would have looked for an explanation inside the store. But not this time. A recent earthquake had altered my frame of reference. My first thought now was that it was another aftershock from the earthquake.  It turned out to be just an efficient store clerk enthusiastically adding inventory at the other end of the table.

Our Evolving Frame of Reference

This experience of being “shaken up” reminded me about how our frame of reference changes as we have new experiences. We can interpret the same experience in completely differently ways, depending on recent events in our lives.

During the recent hurricane, for example, the light movement of trees in the wind (normally a pleasant experience) took on a new meaning as it signaled the arrival of Hurricane Florence. 

When we are aware of our evolving frame of reference, it helps us remember that other people’s experiences shape their perceptions too, and those experiences are likely to be very different from our own.

Expanding the Frame

Catastrophic events can make us pause to reflect on the bigger scheme of things, which is easy to ignore in the midst of a high-speed schedule. We shouldn’t wait for a catastrophic event to force us to take a broader perspective. When we make a commitment to learning, we can expand our frame of reference to include perspectives that differ from our own and and apply this awareness to our daily choices. 

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The Mind Must Move

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We know that to stay healthy, we have to move. Many of us wear wrist bands that track the number of steps we take daily to make sure we “stay in the healthy zone.” I have been increasing my steps each year, and have enjoyed more energy and a sense of improved well-being. While we can easily track our physical steps, our mental steps are more elusive. Our thinking process is deeply connected to our physical systems and grounded in our personal experiences. Just as we may tend toward physical inertia (binge watching Netflix on the coach), we may also tend toward mental inertia. Change is hard, and the comfort zone is as compelling as the couch as a place to stay and rest.

When we don’t move, our bodies deteriorate

 Evelyn O’Neill, manager of outpatient exercise programs at the Harvard-affiliated Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, says “Lack of movement is perhaps more to blame than anything for a host of health problems.” (quoted by Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men’s Health Watch in “Move more every day to combat a sedentary lifestyle”)

When we don’t move our minds, our minds deteriorate too. 

We’ve probably all met people who haven’t updated their thinking in 40 years. It seems as if they live in a different world from the one we live in today. If we stop learning and updating our thinking, we quickly fall out of step with social norms and expectations. Being out step means we make ethical mistakes without even knowing it. This post by Ethical Systems describes the difficulty we have in changing our minds, especially when we are around our peer group.

It seems to me that a sedentary mind is even more worrisome than a sedentary body. A sendentary body will deteriorate within itself, but a sedentary mind (blind to changing societal expectations and values) may make decisions that harm others, on an individual or global scale.

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Seeing Beyond Borders and Walls

By Linda Fisher Thornton

When you make a commitment to ethical values and ethical choices, boundaries and walls only indicate the boundaries of new places to apply those ethical values and choices. Beyond them, ethical values matter just as much as they matter within your own walls. You could argue that they matter more, because you are stepping into other cultures and ways of life and need to take special care to show respect.

Any argument that we can be disrespectful or harmful to others who live outside of our borders is based on flawed thinking, self-interest, myopia and a lack of moral awareness.

Ethical leaders see beyond walls. They don’t dehumanize people to improve their own position.

Ethical leaders think beyond themselves on a global scale. They don’t excuse their own or anyone else’s bad behavior or unethical choices.

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Also see:

Yes, Leaders. Behavior Matters

Just Say No to 10 Behaviors That Kill Competence

Inclusion: The Power of Regardless

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)

 

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22 Resources For Developing Ethical Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This week I’m sharing a collection of hand-picked resources that will help you upgrade your thinking. With all of the ethical messes in the news recently, this seems to be the right time to help you focus on PREVENTION as applied to thinking. It’s our thinking, after all, that determines what we decide to do under pressure. 

Ethical thinking has many important qualities, and one of them is that it is INTENTIONAL. It doesn’t happen on its own. Passive thinking is not likely to lead to ethical decisions or actions. Ethical thinking has to be intentional, developed and practiced. 

Use these resources to develop your ethical thinking skills. After upgrading your skills, you’ll be able to handle ethical issues at a higher level of complexity:

  The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking

 The Missing Domain: Ethical Thinking Part 2

FINAL CHANGE THIS MANIFESTO_Page_01 What is Ethical Thinking? (and “What Ethical Leaders Believe”)

Ethics To Understand Complexity, Use 7 Dimensions of Ethical Thinking

Rethinking “Smart” Leadership in an Ethical Context

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)

Ten Thinking Traps That Ethical Leaders Avoidthinkglobal8 Posts and a Trend Report on Global Thinking

Ethical Leaders Take Time to Think

Context and Responsibility 3Ethical Leaders Understand the Context

MORE READER FAVORITES:

Ethical Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us

Our Thinking is an Ethical Driver

Which Values are Ethical Values?

Fear is a Poor Advisor

Thinking Beyond Disciplines: Why We Need It

Five Unintended Consequences of Linear Problem-Solving

Take Your Thinking up a Notch: Strategies For Solving Complex Problems

Traps in How We Think About Leading: The Case of Focusing Too Much on Budget

Passive thinking does not work. As humans, we are flawed thinkers, and if we don’t manage the flaws in our thinking, those flaws will drive our choices. 

Get ready to lead in the volatile and unpredictable future. Read one of these resources each day to upgrade your thinking.

 

Follow The Leading in Context Blog for a new article each week!

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To Learn More, Read the Guide To Ethical Thinking and Leadership: 7 Lenses, Now in Its 2nd Printing!

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