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The Power of Ethical Leadership

“Unleash the positive power of ethical leadership.” That’s the mission of Leading in Context, a leadership development organization that helps people learn how to apply ethical leadership and build an ethical infrastructure – a culture where ethical thinking and behavior is expected, supported and rewarded. CEO Linda Fisher Thornton recently chatted with us about the power of ethical leadership. Here’s what she had to say:

Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey to founding Leading in Context?

The Leading in Context journey began in 2009 when I started a WordPress blog and began seriously researching proactive ethical leadership. I had been in the leadership development field for a long time, but blogging was new and ethical leadership was a refined focus for my work. That year, I started writing the book that would be titled 7 Lenses. As I blogged about what I was learning, I heard from global readers that my posts were helping them and they wanted more, so I kept writing.

Business and nonprofit leaders are realizing now that proactive ethical leadership is not only the right thing to do; it also has direct business benefits. When my book 7 Lenses was finished and published in 2013, right away prominent universities began using it to teach leadership, ethics and corporate social responsibility. People needed a positive message about ethics that explained the “what to do,” instead of the “what not to do” that we so often hear in the media and the classroom.

What are the qualities of an ethical leader?

An ethical leader will make personal, interpersonal and societal ethics a priority. Such a leader genuinely connects with people, builds trust with them and leads in ways that bring out everyone’s best.

How does an employer identify an ethical leader?

An employer can look for a leader who demonstrates respect and care toward others, who makes it a priority to take responsibility, and who considers the impact of every decision on a wide variety of constituents.

What do you wish more people knew about leadership?

First, you can’t separate ethics from leadership. There is no “good leadership” without taking deep responsibility. Second, ethical leadership is multidimensional. There are hundreds of different terms used to describe ethical leadership, and many angles from which to approach it. There’s personal ethics (integrity and character), interpersonal ethics (respect and care), environmental ethics (respect for life and sustainability) and societal ethics (supporting communities and the greater good). Add professional ethics (codes for each profession) and organizational ethical culture (building the people infrastructure for positive ethics) to the mix too. There is more to it than many realize.

Third, because there are multiple dimensions, you can’t expect to see ethical leadership thrive in an organization if you simply ask people to “always do the right thing” or “use the highest integrity.” Organizations need a robust infrastructure that explains what the right thing looks like, and has support for learning and rewards and consequences. Ethical leadership requires a full performance management system that describes, explains, supports and rewards ethical behavior and ethical decisions.

What are some of the ways that you think ethical leadership skills can best be developed?

I believe that learning to think like an ethical leader is one of the most important parts of ethical leadership development. Since our thoughts drive our actions, we need to be aware of them and in charge of them. Practicing ethical decision-making by applying ethical principles to real organizational problems (preferably in leader groups) is also an effective way to develop ethical leadership skills.

What is one thing an ethical leader would never do?

An ethical leader would never oversimplify an issue and take the most advantageous or convenient solution. Ethical leadership requires that we consider the broad implications of our choices, and make an ethical choice that benefits others, not just ourselves.

What are some of the criteria that you use to measure successful leadership?

Leaders who are authentic and ethical have reached the highest level of development. I believe that there are 14 personal, interpersonal and societal dimensions that together form what we think of as authenticity. They involve growth and overcoming internal and external obstacles to living an intentional, aware and ethical life.

  • Personal
  • Introspective
  • Self-Aware
  • Takes Responsibility
  • Has High Ethical Standards
  • Fully Present/Aware of Reality
  • Honest
  • Genuine
  • True to One’s Self
  • Aligned in Thought, Word and Deed (Has Integrity)
  • Committed to Growth and Learning
  • Interpersonal
  • Fully Respectful and Inclusive
  • Cares About Others
  • Service-Focused
  • Societal
  • Has An Identified Life Purpose or Calling
  • Reaches Individual Potential in Ways That Benefit Society

Do you have any practices that you always follow when providing feedback to others?

I like to follow the principle “assume positive intent,” which means that I assume that people want to do well and want to do the right thing. In my experience, most people fit into this category. That means that feedback should be positive in nature, delivered in a way that builds trust and establishes a positive long-term working relationship.

Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

The learning journey to becoming an ethical leader is one that takes a lifetime. We are all at different stages in our ethical development, and we will always be learning. Intentionally taking this learning journey transforms us and those we lead in positive ways.

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