There are many well-known formulas for leadership, but few for ethical leadership. Good leaders are ethical leaders, and many would welcome a clear guide to help them sort through the moral challenges they face.
Linda Fisher Thornton, a Richmond, Va.-based consultant, has long realized that we need a way to clarify ethical leadership. A few years ago, she attended a symposium where global experts from different disciplines presented their ideas. Each offered compelling insights, but no overarching framework was presented to bring it all together.
She decided to write a book to weave the ideas together, and a seven-element perspective emerged that she uses in her leadership development efforts: profit, law, character, people, communities, planet, and greater good.
Ms. Thornton suggests thinking of each element as a lens. With multiple lenses, we see a fuller picture to deal with decisions in our working lives. “Ethical leadership is both multidimensional and evolving. It is an opportunity to bring out the best in people and organizations,” she writes in 7 Lenses.
Her lenses move from thinking of ourselves and how we profit, to focusing on others – people, communities and the planet. “It takes a higher level of thinking to think of all these dimensions at one time. But we need to develop ethical leaders who can deal with greater complexity,” she said in an interview.
Here’s how it works:
Talking about profit may seem out of place in a discussion about ethics, but she feels any framework without profit would lose credibility with business leaders. The profit lens honours the money concerns; after all, companies need profits to employ and pay employees, make products, and contribute to the communities they serve. Profits are fundamental to business survival, and a key concern to leaders. But not the only concern, she stresses, arguing that profits have no inherent moral grounding and making them the sole focus would mean ignoring other important moral elements. “You must make money while honouring the other dimensions,” she said.
Ethical leaders follow the law and regulations. But laws represent the minimum standards of society; people are punished and businesses are penalized for their illegal actions. But if we focus on obeying laws and regulations only to avoid fines or jail time, we are aiming too low. The laws, for example, punish someone who strike a colleague in the workplace – that’s assault. But leaders have to be concerned about the rights and dignity of people in their workplace, beyond what legislators have decreed.
Ethical leaders demonstrate character, taking care to ensure that their thoughts, words, and deeds are aligned. They are willing to do themselves what they ask of others. Character is displayed when we show moral awareness and competence. Leaders should demonstrate consistency about who they are (their values and beliefs), what they feel, what they say, and what they do. Their desires, thoughts, and actions should be aligned with their core values. They should notice things that have moral or ethical implications – whether that involves their own behaviour, the actions of others, or the organizational policies under which they operate.
This element focuses on the interpersonal dimension, caring for others. Leaders must consider how an option would benefit or harm others, what impact it would have on morale, how it would influence employee well-being and happiness, and the potential impact on customers. “This includes avoiding any harm that may come to people, including customers and communities,” Ms. Thornton said in the interview.
This covers helping those in need, to help make better the communities in which the company operates, for example by supporting communal resources such as education, clean water, parks, and libraries. An example would be companies that encourage employees to volunteer in the community but more generally involves being a good corporate citizen.
Leaders must take a long-term view of the viability of the planet and life, and not overuse valuable resources. The sustainability movement has highlighted this ethical responsibility, and while Ms. Thornton believes it is very difficult for a company to have a “zero footprint” (that is, taking nothing from the planet), at least it can work to reduce its footprint every year.
Ethical leaders must embrace responsibility for future generations. “This leadership is greater than ourselves, greater than our own interests, greater than our own works, and greater than our own lifetimes,” she writes.
And it’s not a burden. Taking account of the broader good is like a lever, helping to promote better engagement and retention of employees, and customer satisfaction. “This doesn’t get in the way of doing our work – it leverages our work,” she said in the interview.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter