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October 11, 2018

Ethical Leadership and Doing the Right Thing

Rachel Salaman

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Have you ever noticed how decisions are so much harder when you try to do the right thing and make an ethical decision, rather than focusing on what's easiest or most practical? This is mainly because "the right thing" means different things to different people.

It's like carving jello. Priorities shift and the decision wobbles, just when a direction and structure should be taking shape.

Doing the Right Thing
Thornton: Business success is a happy by-product of ethical decision making.

Yet making ethical business decisions is increasingly important in today's world. News of a leader's questionable behavior can spread around the globe in seconds, and bring down an entire organization.

A Continuum of Different Perspectives

Linda Fisher Thornton, leadership and performance author, and current CEO of Leading in Contex, has made it her life's work to help leaders to navigate these issues. She's recently brought her advice together in a new book, "7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership." So, what does "ethical leadership" mean to her?

"It's much bigger than any one simple definition could describe," she tells me, in our recent Expert Interview podcast. "In our global society, what we call 'ethical leadership' is actually a continuum of different perspectives. Understanding the whole continuum helps us see our choices in a broader context."

Ethical Leadership and Doing the Right Thing

The continuum goes from small and close to large and far-reaching, represented by the seven lenses of her book's title. These are profit, law, character, people, communities, planet, and the greater good. If we view all of our decisions through these seven lenses, we can be pretty confident that we're making an ethical decision. And that's good for business, according to Fisher Thornton.

But wait, is she saying we should do the right thing in order to make more money? That doesn't sound very ethical. When I voice this concern, she points out that business success is a happy by-product of ethical decision making. There's nothing "dodgy" about it. In fact, being guided by ethics is all good.

"It's only negative when you get it wrong, when you violate those ethical principles," she says. "There are many amazing positive benefits of applying ethical values that I think people need to know about. It helps them move ethical learning up in their priorities. Also, it lets them know there will be a return on the investment if they take the time to invest in that learning."

Grounded in Data

And this isn't just wishful thinking. It's grounded in data. "Every year, there's more research that tells us ethical leadership drives organizational success in some really powerful ways. This includes attracting top talent, keeping people engaged, increasing job satisfaction, improving productivity, and improving profitability," Fisher Thornton says.

"So, I'm not suggesting they do it just to boost business. However, I am letting them know that intentional and consistent ethical leadership provides companies a competitive advantage. I think that helps them take the journey."

Everyone Should be Doing the Right Thing

Although her focus is on leaders, Fisher Thornton is clear that everyone in the hierarchy should be "concerned about ethics and carefully protecting the organization's reputation."

After all, she continues, "many major problems that we're seeing in the news are happening at the customer service level, where people are working directly with customers. Even when companies have said they're committed to the highest ethics and they want to treat everyone with respect, where that really counts is in the day-to-day interactions with customers. So these values have to be lived out every day."

Spreading an Ethical Mindset

So what's the best way to spread an ethical mindset throughout an organization? Well, there are two different paths you can take, she says: prevention or cure.

"The cure approach doesn't work, because it's basically 'ignore the problem' and when you have a major ethical scandal, then get your ethical culture system in place. But it's really too late, because the damage has been done and your brand value is tarnished," Fisher Thornton explains.

Prevention Rather Than Cure

"So prevention is the way to go, making this a priority before there's a problem, and using it to prevent those kinds of things that make the headlines that all companies want to avoid."

To help translate that aspiration into practical application, Fisher Thornton told me how to apply her seven lenses to an everyday management decision: dealing with a complaint of unequal pay.

Here’s what she said:

Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.

What do you do to make sure you keep learning? Join the discussion below!

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