What Is Ethical Leadership in Education?

Written by Rebecca Turley

ethical administrator

Integrity, respect, honesty, ethical decision-making… these aren’t just buzz words for the ethical leader. They serve as the foundation for today’s educational leaders who strive to lead by example, create a culture of transparency, and foster an atmosphere of trust and openness with both faculty and students.

But what is ethical leadership, exactly? Ethical leadership is about modeling the ethical behavior you want to see in others.

In an ethically led environment, leaders work to promote a culture of trust, transparency, and responsibility that inspires and empowers all members of an organization to do the right thing.

That old saying, “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” has no place in an ethical leader’s playbook. Today’s educational leaders know that they must model the behaviors they want others to follow.

“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education that stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Why Is Ethical Leadership Important in Education?

Educational leaders turn to ethical leadership because it sets the tone and provides a clear picture of what is considered appropriate, respectful behavior while modeling responsible decision-making with the entire school community in mind. It naturally creates a positive educational atmosphere that leaves little room for negative influences.

Educational leaders who commit to creating and nurturing an ethical environment are able to establish school cultures that are safe, secure, and supportive for students and staff alike. In these environments, open, honest communication is encouraged. Topics like bullying, inclusion, and student discipline become more approachable, and trust naturally flourishes. The result? A successful school climate you’ll be glad to call your own.

Ethical leaders in the K-12 environment:

When educational leaders get it right and successfully integrate values into their management style, everyone benefits.

An Educational Leader’s Guide to Leading Ethically in the K-12 Environment 

training employeesEducational leaders who lead ethically cultivate a culture where sound behavior and ethical judgment are standard; and where expectations are always clear.

But this doesn’t just happen organically. Just because you consider yourself an ethical person doesn’t mean that an ethical environment under your leadership naturally ensues.

Knowing and doing are two very distinct things, and when it comes to leading, either at the building- or district-level, you’ll need to have more than just a solid, moral compass. You’ll need to have a set of clear expectations, a definable code of conduct, and a solid plan put into place.

There’s no one correct way to lead ethically. From your unique leadership style to the needs and challenges of the school or district you’re tasked with leading, the act of leading looks different from one system to the next. Personal beliefs, philosophical and religious worldviews, societal norms… they all play a part in what ethical leadership looks like.

But there are a set of core values you can use as your springboard for creating an educational environment with clear ethical parameters.

Peter Northouse’s book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, has become the de facto guide on ethical leadership among scholars and practitioners alike. According to Northouse, most ethical systems are built on five, core areas:

1. Respect

Respecting others means valuing others’ opinions; listening to their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and frustrations; and treating everyone fairly across the board. In this environment, leaders encourage others to voice their opinions, which creates a culture of positivity, tolerance, and acceptance.

2. Service

Ethical leaders value service to others. Service means taking the time to mentor, counsel, guide, support, and empower those they lead, whether individually or as a group. They seek opportunities to inspire action through professional development activities for faculty and staff and assemblies and events for students.

They never seek to advance their own interests at the expense of others and always make decisions based on what is most beneficial to students and staff.

3. Community

Ethical leaders in education serve as moral leaders who recognize and respect their social and civic responsibilities and understand the weight and consequences of the standards they adopt and the decisions they make. The ethical behavior they display serves as a model for those they lead, for the educational community, and for the broader community. For educational leaders, ethics in the community means always considering the common good.

4. Honesty

Ethical leaders lead from a place of integrity, in all situations and in all circumstances. They always take accountability for their actions and their choices, for better or for worse. And while it may seem rather obvious to speak to the importance of honesty, this core concept of ethical behavior includes being careful to never promise what you can’t deliver; to never evade accountability; and to never shirk your responsibilities.

5. Justice

Ethical educational leadership is always just, meaning that expectations and rules are standard across the board. In a just educational environment, educational leaders apply the same set of rules to everyone and always consider what’s fair to all. Unbiased and objective best describe an ethical educational leader. In today’s world, inclusivity plays an important role in justice.

“We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters… that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules… and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”

Who Is the Ethical Educational Leader? 

doing the heavy liftingEthical leaders in education consider the school and district’s mission, vision, and principals, along with social guidelines and norms. They use their own moral compass to create an ethical framework. The decisions they make are always in the best interest of their students, staff, and communities. They always act in good faith, modeling fairness, honesty, and respect for others. They frequently demonstrate their respect for others by keeping lines of communication open and valuing the contributions of all teachers and staff. They recognize and reward success, display empathy, and convey gratitude. They nurture an environment where transparency and honesty are prioritized.

They are kind and compassionate.

Ethical leaders in education:

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