Linda Fisher ThorntonNote from Art: I am happy to share this guest post on an important topic, ethical competence, by Linda Fisher Thornton. Linda is the author of  7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership., and can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter at @leadingincontxt

Ethical expectations are continuing to increase as we know more about the impact of our choices on others and the planet. As leaders, we have to stay sharp, not just in terms of best leadership practices, but also in terms of our ethical competence.

Ethical competence includes the mindset and the ethical values that we bring to our choices, actions and decisions. It also includes our current knowledge of ethical expectations and industry trends, and our general moral awareness. It includes how we treat other people, and how we take responsibility as a member of our profession and as a citizen of the community.

When we demonstrate a high level of ethical competence we see ourselves as responsible for honoring multiple stakeholders in our daily decisions and actions. We care what happens to customers and employees, we find ways to contribute to the communities we serve, and we conserve resources to protect the planet.

There are many different levels of our ethical competence that we need to pay attention to, including these five – Personal, Interpersonal, Organizational, Professional and Societal.

5 Levels of Ethical Competence

  1. Personal – demonstrating personal congruence, moral awareness and character
  2. Interpersonal –treating people with respect, demonstrating care
  3. Organizational – following the ethics codes and expectations of our organizations
  4. Professional – following ethics codes of our chosen profession and staying current on industry news and staying within the boundaries of ethical behavior
  5. Societal – seeking mutually beneficial solutions, improving lives and communities, protecting the planet for future generations

Ethical competence will always be a moving target as the world changes. Because ethical expectations continually change, staying competent requires an Intentional, Open-Minded, Proactive and Constant quest for learning. Ethical leaders take an intentional approach when it comes to learning about ethical leadership, because the stakes are high.

Here is a glimpse of the mindset of the learning ethical leader:

Inside the Mind of an Ethical Leader

“I make decisions based on values, not money pressures.”

“I need to constantly learn in order to stay ethical.”

“I can learn something from you, even if we disagree.”

 “Leadership means creating value for others.”

“Understanding multiple perspectives helps us find mutually beneficial solutions.”

 “Respect is the minimum standard.”

One of the challenges we face on the journey to ethical leadership is staying focused on making intentional values-based choices while reacting to the chaos around us. It is easy to make decisions quickly when things are chaotic, but that doesn’t give us time to consider the ethical implications of our choices. Only when we consider the broader impact of our choices are we demonstrating proactive ethical leadership.

Another challenge is the temptation to use short-term thinking. If we make a decision that works in the short-term (over the next 3 months for example), that same decision may cause ethical problems later on.

Here is an example:

If I use a cheaper part in a medical device to increase profits in the next quarter, that cheaper part may lead to an increase in patient injuries or deaths, and may need to be recalled. This short-term decision based on profits could not only harm patients but also the company in the long run.

Making values-based choices and thinking long term take intention and practice. In The Leading in Context® Manifesto, a statement of belief in the positive power of ethical leadership, I wrote, “Ethical leadership is not something on our to do list that we can check off as completed. It is an ongoing individual and organizational journey. This learning journey will bring out the best in all of us.”

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC and one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. She also teaches as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. Her new book is 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership., [email protected], @leadingincontxt