Adaptation and Controlling Leadership Can’t Coexist

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Leaders who solve complex problems need a special blend of qualities – the curiosity to untangle the variables, the persistence to keep trying, and the openness to change beliefs and strategies as answers emerge from the chaos. 

But those qualities will only take them so far. They’ll also need to be great listeners and engaging leaders, so that they gather information from stakeholders and team members. They’ll need to be systems thinkers with a global mindset.

Even if leaders usually demonstrate those important qualities, when problems seem too complex to solve they may be tempted to use ineffective approaches to gain a sense of control. Facing increasing complexity, they may revert to negative patterns instead of adapting to change. I think we’ve probably all done this when we’re stressed – as leaders or even as parents – becoming more inflexible and demanding that things go a certain way.

“What we see in our data over and over again is that when faced with complexity, the natural proclivity of people and organizations is to respond with order—to turn to hierarchical approaches of leading and managing change top-down.”

MaryUhl-Bien and Michael Arena, in their article “Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability

What happens when leaders fail to notice that they are “taking control” instead of influencing and engaging? They de-motivate teams of highly talented people trying to stay on the cutting edge of an industry. That de-motivation can lead to a spiraling decline in important organizational metrics.

While it may provide the illusion of control, controlling or top-down leadership doesn’t invite organic information sharing or encourage rapid adaptation. Both are needed for survival in today’s evolving global marketplace. 

Want to Learn More? Join Leading in Context CEO Linda Fisher Thornton Thursday, November 9 for Developing Leadership That Inspires, a Live Online Workshop via Compliance IQ.

Top 100 Leadership Blog





Click the cover to read a free preview!  

©2017 Leading in Context LLC

Focusing on Profits? Watch Out For the “Blinder” Effect

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We need money to exchange goods and services, pay bills and grow our businesses. So what’s the problem with it? The problem is that profitability cannot become our defining business goal, and it cannot replace values as the central beacon of our decision-making.

Money has no inherent moral grounding. 

Since it has no inherent moral grounding, we can’t ever let money be the deciding factor in our decision-making. We have to balance the quest for dollars with strong ethical values.  It is this moral grounding that ensures that we will consider how our decisions benefit or harm others. Making profitability a singular goal leaves an organization stuck in self-serving mode.

In self-serving mode, anything that brings in dollars looks good.

A focus on money alone causes leaders to plod on, as if wearing blinders, ignoring unintended consequences and harm.

We can’t put money where morality should be.

Have you ever lived in a house constructed by a builder who saved fifty cents by using a cheaper part, and that “savings” interfered with your enjoyment of your home or cost you major repair problems? How do you feel about food companies that choose the cheapest ingredients without regard to the health impact of the products they sell? The self-serving pursuit of profit doesn’t work in today’s world. People expect much more.

Ethical leaders care for constituents (not just profits). 

Money lacks inherent meaning and ethical values. It is just a token of exchange. It is our responsibility to add the ethical values.


Follow the Leading in Context Blog for weekly posts that help you Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership™


For more, see 7 Lenses  and the related 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

© 2014 Leading in Context LLC 

Ethics and Trust are Reciprocal

20140323_173426By Linda Fisher Thornton

I was asked recently to explain in simple terms how ethics and trust are related. It is a great question, because we define trust and ethics in so many different ways.

Here are some observations about how trust and ethics are related, and what their relationship means for us as organizational leaders.

What is the Relationship Between Ethics and Trust?

Proactive ethics is part of what it takes to build trust.

Building trust is part of what is required to maintain good ethics.

Ethical behavior and choices help build trust.

High trust environments encourage better ethics.

When trust is lost, people are less likely to uphold the organization’s ethics.

When ethics is absent, trust is elusive.

The Positive Balance

What does all of this mean to us as leaders? It means that ethics and trust are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. Improving one improves the other. Damaging one damages the other.

Ethics and trust are reciprocal. They are mutually reinforcing. 

If we lead in ways that are trustworthy, we are fulfilling an important part of our responsibility as ethical leaders. When it comes to leading ethically, trust is not a nice-to-have,  it’s a “must have.” If we lead ethically, that lets people know they can count on us, and being able to count on us builds trust with individuals and within the group.

Ethics and trust are inseparable. They travel together.

Trust and ethics travel together, as if tethered with a bungee cord. One will not travel far without pulling the other with it. For example, if I intentionally improve my ethics, that will also begin to improve trust. If I work on improving trust, that will also increase the chances that my team is watching out for ethics and would alert me if something happened that would put us as risk.

Exercising Ethics and Trust 

Ethics and trust act in tandem. Think of them as the respiratory system and heart of the organization. If one fails, the other follows. Keeping them in good shape requires constant attention and daily practice.

Ethics and trust are improved through intentional practice. 

The good news is that just as the human respiratory system and the heart are improved through exercise, organizational ethics and trust can be strengthened through intentional daily practice.



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  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2014 Leading in Context LLC 


Dealing With Complexity in Leadership

SAMSUNGBy Linda Fisher Thornton

Dealing with work complexity has become a major leadership development issue. And it is a challenge that has ethical implications. As our work becomes more complex, so do our ethical dilemmas.

What is Thinking Complexity?

We may want to lead responsibly but still struggle to make ethical decisions in highly complex situations. It would help if we could develop the thinking skills to navigate those situations more easily. If we were prepared to think at a high degree of complexity, we would be better able to understand the organization and its challenges from multiple perspectives when making difficult decisions.

“If managers and leaders are to scratch beneath the surface and delve into the substance of their organizations, what is needed is “cognitive complexity” which can be defined as “the intellectual ability of a manager or leader to envision the organization from multiple and competing perspectives so as to develop a depth of organizational understanding that is at least equal to the factors impacting its functioning.”

Richard Jacobs, Analyzing Organizations Through Cognitive Complexity, Villanova University

Considering multiple perspectives in decision-making provides an advantage to leaders and organizations as they juggle competing demands. How can we prepare leaders to do that?

Preparing Leaders

We are going to need to improve our thinking skills to be ready to deal with the increasing complexity of work in our networked global society. According to Nick Petrie, Center for Creative Leadership, we will need a completely new approach to developing leaders in order to deal with the level of change that is coming.

“There is one thing that I have become certain of and that is that the methods that have been used in the past to develop leaders really, truly, categorically will not be enough for the complexity of challenges which are on their way for organizations (and broader society).”

Nick Petrie, Future Trends in Leadership Development, Center for Creative Leadership

The ability to think through complex problems clearly is an asset to individual leaders and to the organizations they serve. We need to find ways to help leaders develop this ability, and to do that, it helps to understand what it is that leaders with a high degree of thinking complexity do.

What Do Leaders With High Thinking Complexity Do?

As you review this list, consider how you can seek meaningful leadership development experiences that support these practices.

Think in Multiple Dimensions and in Relationships

“Persons who are high in cognitive complexity are able to analyze (i.e., differentiate) a situation into many constituent elements, and then explore connections and potential relationships among the elements; they are multidimensional in their thinking.”

Streufert, S., & Swezey, R. W. (1986). Complexity, managers, and organizations. New York: Academic Press, online at The College of St. Scholastica

Deal Well With Ambiguity and Contradictory Findings 

“There are numerous studies which suggest that individuals who have high cognitive complexity tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity, more comfortable not only with new findings but even with contradictory findings. Moreover, such individuals have a greater ability to observe the world in terms of grey rather than simply in terms of black and white.”

J. Rogers Hollingsworth, Knowledge, Communication and Creativity, University of Wisconsin-Madison, online at

Use Systems Thinking

“To meet the needs of requisite complexity, Knowledge Era leadership requires a change in thinking away from individual, controlling views, and toward views of organizations as complex adaptive systems that enable continuous creation and capture of knowledge.”

Uhl-Bien, Marion & McKelvey, Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era, University of Lincoln-Nebraska

Intentionally Seek and Integrate New Information

“Complex people tend to be more open to new information, rely on their own integrative efforts than new information, seek more novel information, search across more categories of information, and are less externally information bound. They tend to take in more information and form more well rounded impressions than less complex persons.”

Streufert, S., & Swezey, R. W. Complexity, managers, and organizations. New York: Academic Press, online at The College of St. Scholastica

Connect Employees, Processes and Tools to Meet Goals

Ultimately, these women and men – armed with cognitive complexity and the skills and techniques associated with best practice – will manage and lead their organizations to achieve their goals by uniting people, technology and process in a more efficient and effective human way.

Richard Jacobs, Analyzing Organizations Through Cognitive Complexity, Villanova University

Simplify Complexity For Those They Lead

Those leaders of the units judged to be ‘most successful’ were not those who demonstrated the higher levels of systemic thinking but, rather, seemed able to simplify complexity for their teams.

Keith Normal Johnston, Complexity of thinking and levels of self-complexity required to sustainably manage the environment, thesis submitted to Australian National University

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 out 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.
To Learn More:
Capitalizing on Complexity (and Other CEO Reports), The IBM C-Suite Studies,


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 


Testimonials – Learn about the Leading in Context difference from satisfied customers, readers and fans!


What Does Ethical Consumerism Mean for Business?

by Linda Fisher Thornton

What is Ethical Consumerism?

Ethical consumerism means that more customers are choosing to purchase goods that are ethically sourced, ethically made and ethically distributed. In her article “Ethical Consumerism and Conservatism: Hand in Glove” in the Heinz Journal, Jacqueline Payne describes the ethical consumer this way:

“An ethical consumer is someone who buys things that are produced ethically. Depending on the context, ethical production may mean producing something that is recycled, using labor that is produced in facilities without the use of slavery and child labor, or processing food that is raised organic or free range. If you buy one of these products, you could be an ethical consumer and not even know it… or you may not be one. However, the whole point of the ethical consumerism movement is that you ‘know’ what you are buying and that you buy things that are produced ethically because not ‘knowing’ leads to abuse and exploitation.”

Jacqueline Payne, “Ethical Consumerism and Conservatism: Hand in Glove,” The Heinz Journal, Carnegie Mellon University

What Do Ethical Consumers Want?

Consumers are increasingly purchasing ethically sourced and prepared foods. In Top 10 Global Food Trends, Fiona Haynes,, says that “More people want to eat eggs, meat or chicken that was raised or killed humanely or to know that the people who grew the coffee they buy were fairly paid.”

In “Ethical Consumerism and the Purchase of Human Rights Clothes” Human Rights Support describes the increasing consumer demand for ethically produced clothing:

An industry that is seeing a push for high-quality products that are produced in a way that supports human rights is the clothing industry. Consumers are demanding human rights clothes and looking for ways to purchase them.

“Ethical Consumerism and the Purchase of Human Rights Clothes”, Human Rights Support,’s 12 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2012 decribes an “eco-cycology” trend in which “Brands will increasingly take back all of their products for recycling (sometimes forced by new legislation), and recycle them responsibly and innovatively.” According to, “trading in is the new buying.”

In “Top Trends for 2012: Purity, Authenticity and Sustainability Lead the Way” Innova Marketing describes the customer demand for pure products, and points out that in a customer’s mind, “sustainability is a given.”

According to, even consumers in developing companies see the value of the new “green economy” where doing business sustainably is the norm:

GlobeScan’s and SustainAbility‘s most recent survey of global consumers, conducted in collaboration with National Geographic, shows that those in emerging economies are even more likely than their developed-world peers to reject the notion that environmental responsibility and economic prosperity are mutually exclusive.

The survey among consumers across 17 countries asked them to say whether they thought a Green Economy would be more or less effective than today’s economy in addressing a range of environmental and social challenges—and found that, globally, consumers thought a Green Economy would be more effective in all areas except for the creation of low-paying jobs.

Developing World Consumers More Upbeat About Economic Impact of a Green Economy,

How Should Businesses Respond?

Ethical consumers want much more than a good product for a good price. They also look for these things in a company, brand or product:

  • Natural, Pure Ingredients
  • Ethical Sourcing, Production and Distribution
  • Clear Information About Nutrition
  • Transparency
  • Fair Labor
  • Honoring Human Rights
  • Protecting Human Health
  • Respecting the Environment
  • Sustainability
  • Ethical Marketing and Advertising
  • Renewable/Recyclable Packaging
  • Giving Back to the Community and Society

Businesses need to carefully examine how well they are meeting the evolving ethical expectations of consumers. They will be simultaneously responding to ethical consumerism trends and figuring out “how to remain profitable yet sustainable in a flat economy.” (Experts Split on Whether Growth and Sustainable Consumption Compatible,

How far ahead or behind is your company in responding to today’s ethical consumer? Use the questions below to explore how ethical consumerism will impact the way you do business in the next 5 years.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How might the ethical consumerism trend affect our business in the next 1-5 years?

2. What will we need to change to keep up with what ethical consumers expect?

3. How will responding to these trends help our business and our customers?


8 Reasons Why You Should Take Ethical Consumption More Seriously,

Ethical Consumer: From Margin to Mainstream,

12 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2012,


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  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 

%d bloggers like this: