Compliance Mindset vs. Leadership Mindset

There are two basic ways to think about ethics: the conventional rules-based approach of minimum compliance, which emphasizes containment of wrong-doing and adherence to rules; and there is the innovative (but actually much older than modern society) and rather liberating approach of virtue ethics.

All approaches to ethics are rooted in a certain anthropology — a particular view of what a human person is. Conventional professional ethics is primarily centered around adherence to rules about what you must do, what you can do, and what you must not do. This compliance approach has its roots in an understanding of human beings as fundamentally naughty and need to be forced to comply with certain rules so that we can all get along better. Such “ethical codes” are about what expectations you must follow in order to be respectable in your profession.

A totally different mindset about behavior and ethics is through virtue-ethics. Virtue ethics is rooted in a more humane view of a person. It recognizes we are fundamentally oriented to the good and inherently desire it, though we may for various reasons fail to accomplish it.

The virtue-ethics approach recognizes the need for rules, but where conventional “rules-based ethics” is focused on getting from -10 up to 0, just maintaining a baseline of basic compliance, virtue ethics is focused on going from 0–10, from baseline to maximum performance, from basically good to truly great.

The conventional approach comes from a pessimistic attitude about human beings and often from a place of anxiety. It abhors “daring greatly” (to borrow a term from Brene Brown) and is analogous to what Carol Dweck calls the “fixed mindset” in cognitive psychology. We might call this approach the “Compliance Mindset”.

The opposite of the Compliance Mindset, the correlate to Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”, is the Leadership Mindset of virtue-ethics. The virtue-ethics approach is rooted in a more positive in it’s understanding of human beings, and is founded on the confidence in our ability to develop character strengths and skills to serve others in a way that contributes to the common good of which we are a part. In contrast to conventional professional ethics, this approach embraces our ability to “dare greatly” and strive for greatness in service to others, to achieve greatness by bringing out the greatness in others. We will call this approach the “Leadership Mindset” because it is not content with the mere compliance of mediocrity, but strives after greatness in order to draw out the inherent greatness in others. In other words, virtue ethics is about leading others to become great, and that’s the kind of leader this world needs more of.

So, what kind of leader are you?

Cameron M. Thompson is the Executive Vice-President of the Virtuous Leadership Institute, North America. Find out more at

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