Ethical Leadership. ERIC Digest.
by Lashway, Larry
"Real leaders concentrate on doing the right thing, not on doing things
right." That advice from organizational consultants comes as no surprise
to school leaders, whose lives are filled with difficult ethical dilemmas.
Principals experience such dilemmas on a daily basis, says William Greenfield
(1991). Having moral obligations to society, to the profession, to the
school board, and to students, they find that "it often is not clear what
is right or wrong, or what one ought to do, or which perspective is right
in moral terms."
Unfortunately, relatively few administrators have been trained to deal
with these conflicts. Until very recently, ethical issues were given little
attention in preparation programs (Lynn Beck and Joseph Murphy 1994).
WHAT ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITIES DO SCHOOL LEADERS HAVE?
Greenfield notes that school leaders face a unique set of ethical demands.
Schools are moral institutions, designed to promote social norms, and principals
are moral agents who must often make decisions that favor one moral value
over another. Moreover, although schools are dedicated to the well-being
of children, students have virtually no voice in what happens there. For
all these reasons, the leader's conduct "must be deliberately moral."
Leader's moral duty expresses itself not only in the obvious day-to-day
ethical dilemmas, but in the mundane policies and structures that may have
hidden ethical implications. Robert Starratt (1991) notes that every social
arrangement benefits some people at the expense of others; simply to assume
that schools embody desirable standards is "ethically naive, if not culpable."
Thus, the principal must not only behave responsibly as an individual,
but must create an ethical institution.
As leaders, principals have a special responsibility to exercise authority
in an ethical way. Greenfield points out that much of a principal's authority
is moral; that is, teachers must be convinced that the principal's point
of view reflects values they support. Coercion through bureaucratic authority
will seldom have a positive, lasting effect.
WHAT ETHICAL DILEMMAS DO PRINCIPALS FACE?
As defined by Rushworth Kidder (1995), an "ethical dilemma" is not a
choice between right and wrong, but a choice between two rights. For example,
considering a bribe would be a "moral temptation"; deciding whether scarce
resources should go to a gifted curriculum or a dropout-prevention program
would constitute a dilemma.
Dilemmas arise when cherished values conflict. A principal who values
both teacher autonomy and student achievement will face a dilemma when
teachers want to enact a policy that lowers expectations.
This kind of conflict is heightened because school leaders are public
officials with obligations to many people who often have competing values
or interests. Should parents be informed if a counselor learns that their
daughter is considering an abortion? Should a student group be able to
book an assembly speaker whose views will offend some in the community?
Should the principal support a teacher who has made a questionable grading
Some studies suggest that obligations to superiors put special pressure
on ethical decision-making. For instance, Peggy Kirby and colleagues (1990)
asked principals to estimate how "a typical colleague" would respond to
hypothetical dilemmas. Respondents usually indicated that colleagues would
take "the path of least resistance" by deferring to superiors or taking
refuge in official policies. Kirby and her colleagues speculate that these
hypothetical colleagues actually reflect the norm.
HOW CAN LEADERS RESOLVE ETHICAL DILEMMAS?
Moral philosophers generally agree there is no ethical "cookbook" that
provides easy answers to complex dilemmas. But a number of thinkers have
suggested some guidelines.
First, leaders should have and be willing to act on a definite sense
of ethical standards. Starratt argues that a fully informed ethical consciousness
will contain themes of caring (What do our relationships demand of us?);
justice (How can we govern ourselves fairly?); and critique (Where do we
fall short of our own ideals?).
Second, leaders can examine dilemmas from different perspectives. Kidder
describes three. One is to anticipate the consequences of each choice and
attempt to identify who will be affected, and in what ways. Another approach
uses moral rules, assuming that the world would be a better place if people
always followed certain widely accepted standards (such as telling the
truth). A third perspective emphasizes caring, which is similar to the
Golden Rule: How would we like to be treated under similar circumstances?
Third, leaders can often reframe ethical issues. Kidder claims that
many apparent dilemmas are actually "trilemmas," offering a third path
that avoids the either-or thinking. For example, faced with a parent who
objects to a particular homework assignment on religious grounds, a principal
may be able to negotiate an alternative assignment, thereby preserving
academic integrity without trampling on parental rights.
Finally, leaders should have the habit of conscious reflection, wherever
it may lead them.
HOW DO LEADERS CREATE ETHICAL INSTITUTIONS?
By their nature, most schools do not encourage discussion of ethical
issues; educators spend most of the day isolated from one another, and
time is always at a premium. One means of raising ethical awareness is
to form an ethics committee similar to those found in many hospitals. Such
committees would not make formal rulings, but would raise awareness of
ethical issues, formulate ethical codes, and advise educators grappling
with ethical dilemmas (Betty Sichel 1993).
Thomas Sergiovanni (1992) says that truly effective schools are those
with a shared covenant clearly articulating the school's core values and
providing a standard by which actions will be judged. Leaders must not
only take the lead in formulating the covenant but actively support and
enforce it. When a vital standard is ignored, principals should "lead by
WHAT VIRTUES MUST LEADERS PRACTICE?
Students of ethics are unanimous on one point: moral leadership begins
with moral leaders. Howard Gardner (1995) says of great leaders that they
embody the message they advocate; they teach, not just through words, but
What virtues are most important for school leaders? Some studies suggest
that honesty is the quality most appreciated by subordinates (Michael Richardson
and others 1992). And any principal who has launched a risky new program
or has publicly shouldered the blame for someone else's mistake can testify
to the importance of courage.
Some who write about ethics argue that leaders must use their power
with restraint, since it always holds the potential for treating others
as less than fully human. Peter Block (1993) advocates stewardship, which
is the willingness to accept accountability for results without always
trying to impose control over others. In simplest terms, stewardship asks
leaders to acknowledge their own human faults and limitations rather than
hiding behind their status and power.
Whatever virtue is desired, moral philosophers going back to Aristotle
have emphasized that it must become a habit. Just as musicians develop
musical ability by playing an instrument, people become virtuous by practicing
virtue. Ethical behavior is not something that can be held in reserve for
momentous issues; it must be a constant companion.
To be an ethical school leader, then, is not a matter of following a
few simple rules. The leader's responsibility is complex and multi-dimensional,
rooted less in technical expertise than in simple human integrity.
Beck, Lynn G., and Joseph Murphy. "Ethics in Educational Leadership
Programs: An Expanding Role." Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press,
Block, Peter. "Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest." San
Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993.
Gardner, Howard. "Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership." New York:
Basic Books, 1995.
Greenfield, William D., Jr. "Rationale and Methods To Articulate Ethics
and Administrator Training." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
American Educational Research Association, Chicago, April 1991. 32 pages.
ED 332 379.
Kidder, Rushworth M. "How Good People Make Tough Choices." New York:
William Morrow, 1995.
Kirby, Peggy C.; Louis V. Pardise; and Russell Protti. "The Ethical
Reasoning of School Administrators: The Principled Principal." Paper presented
at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
Boston, April 1990. 11 pages. ED 320 253.
Richardson, Michael D., and others. "Teacher Perception of Principal
Behavior--A Study." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mid-South
Educational Research Association, Knoxville, Tennessee, November 1992.
15 pages. ED 352 710.
Sergiovanni, Thomas J. "Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School
Leadership." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.
Sichel, Betty A. "Ethics Committees and Teacher Ethics." In "Ethics
for Professionals in Education: Perspectives for Preparation and Practice,"
edited by Kenneth Strike and P. Lance Ternasky. 162-75. New York: Teachers
College Press, 1993.
Starratt, Robert J. "Building an Ethical School: A Theory for Practice
in Educational Leadership." "Educational Administration Quarterly" 27,
2 (May 1991): 185-202. EJ 425 540.