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Developing the Ethical Leader of the Future

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lindafisherthorntonOn Thursday, I spoke with Human Resource leaders attending the Richmond SHRM Strategic Leadership Conference about The Future of Ethics and Business Leadership.

The lens I used to frame the discussion was leadership development – how we can prepare leaders to lead ethically in a highly complex, connected future.


Here are some highlights from my presentation – a few of the important success principles for developing “Ethical Leader Future.”

Use a Values-Based Approach

  • When we aim our leadership ethics training toward meeting laws and regulations, we are aiming at the minimum standard.
  • A compliance-based approach to leadership ethics focuses on avoiding violations and penalties.
  • A values-based approach to leadership ethics teaches our leaders the values we want them to use as they make decisions every day.

Acknowledge Complexity

  • When we ignore complexity, we tend to teach the part of “ethical leadership” that is crystal clear and easy to explain (and that they probably already know).
  • Oversimplified messages lead to boredom and do not help leaders deal with the complexity that they face in their work.
  • When we acknowledge complexity, we help leaders resolve the natural tension between our leadership and performance expectations and our ethical expectations.
  • When leaders are able to practice dealing with complex ethical issues while they are learning, they are better prepared to make ethical decisions when faced with difficult decisions on the job.

Expect Respectful Behavior

  • We have a responsibility to expect respectful behavior, including teaching people what it looks like and how to use it successfully in conflict situations.
  • We are increasingly aware of the importance of honoring human rights and building workplaces that demonstrate full inclusion.
  • As the “Human” supporters and developers of the organization, Human Resources, Learning and Training departments have a responsibility to teach leaders how to create respectful workplaces, where people can do their best work.

Make Leaders Aware of Their Mindsets and Assumptions

  • Our behavior tends to follow our mindset. If we think that there is only one “right” way to do things, that is usually reflected in how we treat people who are doing things the way that makes sense for them.
  • Since we lead other people, and that involves relationships, we need to examine our assumptions and biases so that we don’t blindly let them influence our behavior.

Integrate Ethics and Leadership

  • Ethics and leadership should never be separated. To separate them when we are training leaders sends the message that there can be good leadership without ethics. What behavior might we get if all of our leaders believe that there can be good leadership without ethics?
  • Making ethics an integral part of all leadership development sends the message that “we lead ethically.”

Hold Leaders Accountable

  • Every leader at every level of the organization should be held accountable for ethical behavior.
  • With accountability for ethical behavior should also come opportunities to practice, and support while applying new skills.

Using these principles for success will help us prepare leaders to behave and lead ethically in an increasingly complex and connected world. Leaders already struggle with complex problems. We need to acknowledge that complexity and help them build the mindset to deal with it responsibly.

Linda Fisher Thornton is the CEO of Leading in Context LLC in Richmond, Virginia, a strategic firm specializing in leadership development. Linda has been developing leaders for 27 years, and brings extensive experience in training design, consulting and organizational development to her work.

Before starting her consulting practice, Linda was Senior Vice President and Training Division Manager of Central Fidelity Bank in Richmond, Virginia. She and her Training team were awarded the National Training Director’s Forum Award for Outstanding Performance in Training for Matching Training and Consulting Services to Business Imperatives.

Linda holds a Master’s degree in Human Resource Development from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies and Linguistics from the University of Virginia.

Linda has been a Guest Columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch Metro Business Section, and recently spoke about “The Future of Ethics and Business Leadership” at the 2012 SHRM Strategic Leadership Conference in Richmond, Virginia. Her 2009 article, “Leadership Ethics Training: Why is it So Hard to Get it Right?” appeared in ASTD’s Training and Development Magazine. In addition to consulting, blogging, speaking and publishing, Linda also teaches leadership as Adjunct Assistant Professor for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Her chosen mission to “clarify what it means to lead ethically in a complex world” is striking a chord with leaders across industries, and her Leading in Context© Blog has attracted followers from 92 countries. You can read current blog posts at, or reach Linda by email at



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Growth in women's share of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations declined to 27% in 2011from a high of 34% in 1990. While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they were 26% of the STEM workforce in 2011.

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