Ethics in School Leadership

Making decisions that show strength, integrity and moral character is critical to building public trust.

It’s important for school leaders to model ethical leadership in the face of adversity. Ethics is an area of study of ideas about what is good and bad behavior. The problem with that definition, however, is that people’s ideas of good and bad behavior differ. And let’s face it, right now it seems that opinionated social media posts, political infighting and outright ugliness rule the day.

At a time when school leaders seem caught between a proverbial tug-o-war between two highly volatile and emotional sides, keeping focused on students is critical to turning the chaos into calm. Nothing hurts a leader more than a poor decision influenced by bad behavior or conflicts of interest. 

Making decisions that show strength, integrity and moral character is critical to building public trust. While you may not be able to change the minds of all public education critics, you can make a substantial impact on those who are undecided or unsure.

It’s often been said that integrity is “who you are when no one is looking.” An ethical leader pays attention to every-day decisions and actions that contribute to the greater good whether they are noticed by others or not.  

With this in mind, here are a few things to remember as you lead with integrity and a focus on ethics:

  1. Culture is everything - set clear expectations for your employees and provide them with training and practical application when it comes to ethical decision-making. You wouldn’t hesitate to do table-top exercises with your leadership team to prepare for a sudden crisis; apply that same time and attention to working through situations that require an eye toward ethical decision-making. Then, be sure to recognize and reward those who demonstrate actions that lead to a culture of good leadership.
  2. Character matters - identify your non-negotiables in advance and learn to lead from a centrist’s perspective. You should display confidence and consistency as you lead, making decisions in the best interest of ALL students and staff. Consider adopting professional or personal core values and then communicate them regularly to others. Being a leader of character often involves putting the interests of others before your own and doing the right thing, even when it is not the popular thing to do.
  3. Communication requires engagement - the most effective communication is two-way and requires intentional engagement with key stakeholders. Be sure to follow a four-step process to solve problems and influence others to act:  Research (what is the problem?); Plan (what needs to be communicated and to who?); Implement (which method should I use to communicate with each target audience?); and Evaluate (how did I do?)
  4. Credibility goes beyond likability - truth and transparency build trust over time. To become known as a person of high standards, you have to be intentional. Act first and be the one who determines your own narrative; find someone you trust as a sounding board for ethical decision-making and apologize if you have done something to lose trust. As a leader, it’s easy to focus on likability, but more valuable long-term to be found credible.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the importance of ethical leadership. He said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  

Very true, but it’s also important to remember that in times of comfort we can lay the strongest foundation for ethical decision-making by simply modeling good character through our small, day-to-day actions and decisions. 


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