Ethical Leadership in Education: Resources for Developing Future Education Leaders

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A school principal with the scales of justice on her desk.

Being a leader means taking responsibility for the success of others. One of the keys to doing well in any profession is living ethically, inside and outside of work. The only way for a leader to demonstrate the importance of ethics to others and the organization is to teach by example.

For education leaders, the goal is to promote fair and equitable access to education resources for everyone, regardless of situation or background. Achieving this goal requires creating an ethical climate that communicates a sense of values, norms, behaviors and attitudes built on respect, openness and fairness.

Understanding the importance of ethical leadership in education is the first step to serve as a model for  all members of the education community.

What Is Ethical Leadership

The National Association of Secondary School Principals’ code of ethical conduct for school leaders states education leaders must be committed to helping every student succeed “by acting with integrity, fairness and in an ethical manner.” The association’s 10 recommendations for education leaders include:

  • Guide all decisions with students’ well-being and success as the fundamental value.
  • Respect the principle of due process and honor the civil and human rights of everyone.
  • Live honestly and with integrity, abiding by all laws at all times.
  • Implement the policies, rules and regulations of the administration, but work to correct those that are inconsistent with sound educational principles.
  • Never use the influence of the position for personal gain.

Definition: What Is an Ethical Leader?

Ethical leadership is making professional and personal decisions using moral principles, boiled down to the simple phrase, “Do the right thing.”

The complexity hidden within that straightforward instruction results from the lack of a universal understanding of what the right thing is at any given time or circumstance. What ethical leadership is, is what ethical leadership does.

  • Ethical leaders acknowledge the complexity of moral situations while staying true to their inner moral compass, which directs them to what is fair, open and honest.
  • Ethical leaders continually communicate their core values to everyone in the organization and define what ethical behavior means to them using specific examples.
  • Ethical leaders understand ethics in the workplace may be new to some people, so they institute ethics training programs and imbue ethics in decisions throughout the organization.

Concepts of Ethical Leadership

Like many complex ideas, ethical leadership is a process that begins with establishing a goal and determining the best plan to achieve it. For education leaders, the goal has three components, including nurturing followers, empowering followers and promoting social justice.

A leader’s intentions, values and behaviors affect their concept of ethics. All three must be guided by consistency and an innate sense of personal integrity based on honesty.

Ethical Dilemmas Inherent in Leadership

Navex Global discusses some of the challenges in attaching ethics to workplace incentives, particularly financial incentives like a bonus. In addition to the practice being possibly unethical, it may also make ethical behavior feel like an extra instead of a foundational responsibility. Further, it could lead employees to hesitate reporting unethical behavior due to potential economic impact.

Other examples of possible negative consequences of ethical policies include:

  • Employees may be hesitant to take risks. An unintended consequence of strong corporate ethics policies could be a decrease in employees’ appetite for risk. However, ethics policies shouldn’t discourage risks, they should simply help a business decide what types of risks to take.
  • Attempts to influence followers’ underlying values and beliefs may be overstepping. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found ethical leadership is associated with a decline in employee well-being. The leader’s focus on ethics may increase followers’ attention to ethics, so they try harder to demonstrate ethical behavior in their daily work. As a consequence, work-related pressure increases.
  • Multiple stakeholders may have competing values. Leaders must decide between the contrasting mindsets and approaches taken by various groups within an organization. However, as Fortune reports, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the division between two competing ideologies: Shareholder primacy emphasizes shareholder value and has dominated the business world for decades, while stakeholder capitalism values the community of employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders as “essential and co-equal constituents of the corporation.”
Seven practices for making ethics an everyday part of leadership.

Ethical leadership must be integrated into all aspects of an organization’s operation. Linda Fisher Thornton, named a Top Thought Leader in Trust by the organization Trust Across America, proposes seven practices for making ethics an everyday part of leadership: keep the decision-making process open and transparent, make ethics a part of all business practices, prevent interpersonal behaviors from eroding trust, see ethics as more than laws and regulations, expect subordinates to behave ethically, celebrate ethical victories and commit to ethics in the long and short term.

Ethical Leadership Theory

Ethical leadership theory impacts the work and approaches taken by education leaders. A recent theory of ethical leadership is based on the concept of social information processing. The theory emphasizes the role of emotions in employees’ ethical actions and decision-making.

  • First, when ethical leaders demonstrate honesty, fairness and consideration in their actions and decision-making, it triggers other-praising moral emotions in followers. These emotions are the source of the good feeling people get when their behavior complements someone else.
  • Second, by setting a positive ethical example, leaders cause followers to praise moral emotions, such as elevation and awe, and to be fair and helpful to others.

Through their actions and decision-making, education leaders can nurture an ethical climate in their schools.

Theories of Ethical Leadership

Only in the past two decades have researchers established the connection between ethical leadership and positive employee and organizational outcomes. Research reported in the European Scientific Journal indicates ethical leadership motivates employees and improves their attitudes and behaviors. It does so by modeling appropriate conduct “through personal actions and interpersonal relationships” promoted via “two-way communication, reinforcement and decision-making.”

These are among the leading ethical leadership theories:

  • Transformational Leadership Theory: Leaders and followers build each other up and focus on the common good over individual interests. Leaders communicate an inspiring and idealized vision of the organization’s goals.
  • Servant Leadership Theory: Leaders attend to the needs of their followers by nurturing, defending and empowering them. Most importantly, leaders inspire their followers to act as servant leaders themselves.
  • Spiritual Leadership Theory: Leaders enhance the spiritual meaning of their followers’ work. Spiritual leaders communicate a vision to their followers to serve a higher purpose, whether or not that purpose has a religious connotation.
  • Authentic Leadership Theory: Leaders’ behavior is driven by strong, positive values; they are consistent in their words and actions. Characteristics of authentic leaders include openness, self-awareness, transparency, confidence, optimism, resilience, consistency and concern for others.

Seven Approaches to Promote Ethical Thinking

A technique being adopted by a growing number of organizations to encourage ethical behavior and decision-making is to create an ethical framework employees can use as a model. The framework serves as a guide managers and employees can refer to when faced with moral dilemmas or potential ethical conflicts.

Various types of ethical questions will be considered from different perspectives based on the approach leaders take.

Situational Ethics

This theory is based on research conducted by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest who supported both euthanasia and abortion. It posits decisions should be predicated on the immediate circumstances rather than upon fixed law and love is the sole motivation behind every decision.

  • Appropriate behavior in one situation may be inappropriate in another situation.
  • Example: Consider the following questions: “Why was I turned down for the promotion to assistant principal?” versus “How do you like the squid salad I brought for the school’s potluck dinner?” The first merits an honest, forthright answer; the second, perhaps not.

Cultural Relativism

This theory is sometimes referred to as “moral relativism” and is often mistakenly considered synonymous with situational ethics. It suggests what is ethical behavior in one culture may be considered unethical in another. The theory requires when making a moral judgment about a person, the attitudes of the community the person is a member of must be considered.

  • What is correct in one culture may be incorrect in another culture.
  • Example: Ritual slaughter of animals for religious practices. Local ordinances that prohibit the killing of animals often include exceptions for specific religious practices.

Professional Ethics

Most professions have established a code of conduct or other ethical standards applying to all members of the profession. Examples include the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics and the Association of American Educators’ Code of Ethics for Educators.

  • A profession’s code of ethics determines what is and what isn’t ethical behavior.
  • Example: The Hippocratic Oath and the AMA code of ethics define ethical behavior for medical doctors. They dictate appropriate responses and decision-making when doctors are faced with specific medical situations the public isn’t likely to encounter.

Value-Based Ethics

This theory is adopted frequently by organizations to ensure managers and employees act in ways  consistent with the company’s core values. Employee actions are determined by their own internal value system with guidance from the organization’s standards for ethical conduct. However, value-based codes of conduct typically require more self-regulation than codes designed to ensure compliance with government regulations.

Individuals judge their actions by listening to their conscience or inner voice. For example, teachers’ interests in their students’ well-being may cause them to spend some of their time outside the classroom participating in activities that improve their students’ educational experience.

Rule-Based Ethics

This theory applies specific rules to ethical conduct. It’s often contrasted with principle-based ethics, which relies on individuals’ principles to ensure ethical behavior. The concept is also referred to as deontological ethics or Kantian duty-based ethics after the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The rules that govern an organization or group determine what is ethical behavior. For example, a school’s code of conduct states the rules employees must follow when interacting with students, parents, co-workers and others. The code applies universally, regardless of the specifics of the situation or the characteristics and beliefs of the people involved.

Fairness-Based Ethics

This theory emphasizes the fair and equitable distribution of good and harm. In making ethical decisions, the social benefits and costs must be considered across a broad spectrum of the community. It’s based on the belief that “all equals should be treated equally,” but those whose differences make them unequal should be treated in a way that is fair considering their differences.

Consider the following: All those who do the same job and who possesses equal knowledge and experience should be paid at the same rate. However, workers with more valuable skills or experience may deserve to earn a higher rate.

Ethics Based on General Principles

The principle-based theory of ethics is the basis for the International Federation of Accountants’ Code of Ethics and was pioneered by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Perceived as more flexible than rule-based approaches, this theory is more reliant on an individual’s sense of professionalism and social responsibility. One downside is enforcement of the code becomes more subjective.

The appropriate action for a given situation is based on generally accepted principles of magnanimity and self-sacrifice. An example would be someone sacrificing personal gain for the good of others or to prevent their harm. Motivation to act ethically lives in the individual’s personal sense of fairness and the equitable treatment of others.

Resources for Ethical Leadership Theory

Principles of Ethical Leadership

The many approaches to ethical leadership share one characteristic: Leaders express outwardly the values they feel internally. The principles of ethical leadership are based on teaching ethics by example. Steven Covey expresses this in his description of principle-based leadership stemming from the person’s internal values as the basis for their external actions.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg describes ethical leaders as having reached the last of the six stages of moral development. The stages extend from obedience and punishment during infancy to an adult’s moral reasoning based on ethical principles and abstract reasoning. An ethical leader is driven by rock-solid internal principles of justice and fairness that transcend laws and rules.

Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Decision-Making

The root of all behavioral and social sciences is philosophical decision theory, described as a model for rational choice driving human behavior. The primary question surrounding philosophical decision theory is the nature of rationality, a question dating back to Aristotle and revived in the 20th century. Its recent popularity is ascribed to its ability to reconcile belief, desire and action.

Rational decision-making can also be expressed to serve not one’s selfish interests but rather the best interests of others, whether family, co-workers or neighbors. These are among the decision theories impacting ethical leadership.

  • Utilitarianism Theory: Associated with John Stuart Mill and ethical cost-benefit analysis, this approach focuses on how subordinates will benefit from the decision.
  • Libertarianism Theory: This principle emphasizes protecting the freedom of individuals to live and act as they choose; consideration of a common good or shared community is secondary.
  • Ethical Theory. Based on Immanuel Kant’s theories, this approach bases decisions on taking actions that are right and just and on the methods the organization uses when taking those actions.

Creating an Ethical Leadership Framework in Educational Institutions

Applying leadership ethics in an education setting begins by defining the moral and ethical virtues that are the heart of the program and determining the best way to implement and measure the ethical framework. The eight principles of ethical leadership developed by U.S. Army General George C. Marshall include:

  • Personal courage: This may be manifest in an education leader’s willingness to voice opposition to policies detrimental to students’ best interests.
  • Public interest ahead of self: This includes the interests of all stakeholders within the school community being placed ahead of the education leader’s self-interest.
  • Self-control, self-discipline and integrity: Education leaders strive to be a positive force in the lives of students, teachers and others in the education community through their actions.
  • Expect ethical behavior from everyone: The standards applying to teachers and education administrators also apply to students and parents; they must be communicated clearly and enforced uniformly.
  • Sensitivity, understanding and inclusiveness: Institutional policies must be implemented with a sense of the political, social and economic environment; all stakeholders deserve an opportunity to participate in setting and implementing policies.

Resources for Principles of Ethical Leadership

Seven principles and seven values for ethical leaders in education.

The Association of School and College Leaders established the Ethical Leadership Commission to create guiding principles and values for ethical leadership in education. Professional principles for ethical leaders in education include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Personal values of ethical leaders in education include trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

The Importance of Ethical Leadership in Education

The primary reason why it’s important to have ethical leadership in education is the power of example to impress upon the entire education community the rewards of behaving ethically. The United Kingdom’s Chartered College of Teaching established the Ethical Leadership Commission to develop a framework for ethical leadership in education. Among the tenets of the framework is to promote ethical behavior with every decision education leaders make and every action they take.

Why Is It Important to Have Ethical Leadership in Education

Educators have to take advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate through their behavior the values and morals students will rely on for ethical guidance throughout their lives, including:

  • Respecting self and others in interpersonal communication, behavior and ecological sustainability
  • Serving and supporting a personal connection to the educational institution, its staff, students and the public
  • Consistent practice for leaders in being a role model in everything they do
  • Community collaboration in classrooms, educational communities and societies

Instilling a Sense of Ethics in Tomorrow’s Education Leaders

The foundation for ethical leadership in education begins with an educator’s earliest education experiences as a child and is nurtured throughout their training. They benefited from seeing firsthand how a person’s underlying sense of fairness, honesty and empathy is exhibited in their decisions and actions. As such, the cycle of ethical education never ends.

Image Sources:

Cleverism, “Ethical Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples”

Leading in Context, “Is It Ethical? (Decision Tool Based on the Book 7 Lenses)”