Ethical leadership in education

This article was written for SecEd Magazine.

Ethical leadership in education is driven by a respect for values and an unfaltering belief in the dignity and rights of others. Ethical leaders build school cultures governed by fair, clearly articulated expectations, rather than cultures driven by personalities or politics.

In an ethically led school, there a clear vision and mission and a set of shared values and principles that are understood and owned by everyone who works there. Every action that is taken is sense-checked against this vision and mission and if completion of said action would not uphold the values and principles, it is not considered valid.

Every element of the school, from performance management appraisals to staff professional development, from expectations of pupil behaviour to the resourcing of the curriculum, reflects this vision and mission, and these values and principles.

Ethical leaders cannot pick and choose which situations call for moral judgement or leave their principles at the door whenever it is convenient – an ethical code provides the very foundations on which these schools are built and function day-to-day.

I think that in the era of Covid-19, ethical leadership is more vital than ever. In practice, this ethical leadership is anchored in five principles.

Honesty: If school leaders are dishonest, a culture of mistrust soon creeps in. This, in turn, leads to a loss of faith, not just in the leaders themselves, but in the whole school and what it stands for and seeks to achieve. Ethical leaders are always honest and upfront, even when they must have difficult conversations or take unpopular decisions. They articulate the rationale and reasoning behind their decisions and set out the supporting evidence. What is more, they afford colleagues a right of reply, and they do not close down dissent.

Justice: If leaders are unjust, an insidious sense of unfairness pervades. Ethical leaders treat everyone equally and ensure that fairness governs their decision-making. They do not give some colleagues special treatment except when a particular situation demands it for the purposes of justice.

Respect: If leaders do not respect their colleagues, they rarely win others’ respect in return. Like authority, respect is earned through one’s actions not guaranteed along with a job title. Ethical leaders believe that everyone has value, both as individuals and as members of the wider school community; as such, they listen carefully to other people’s opinions and ideas, value everyone’s contributions, and work hard to ensure colleagues feel worthwhile. Ethical leaders do not run hierarchical institutions where the word of a senior leader is unquestionable and final. Though schools are not democracies, neither should they be dictatorships – collaboration and cooperation are key to their long-term success.

Community: If leaders do not foster a sense of community and engender collective, professional autonomy, colleagues rarely feel like they belong, and thus they do not develop a sense of ownership of the school’s vision and mission. In short, they do not feel compelled to help achieve the vision. Community breeds a sense of purpose, a belief that each member of the team is a part of something bigger than themselves and has a crucial role to play in that community’s success.

Ethical school leaders build such communities by caring about the health and happiness of their colleagues and by empowering others through genuine delegation. They also invest in their staff’s professional development and instil a sense of collective autonomy or collegiality. Ultimately, ethical leaders regard it as their legacy to build a school that will continue to succeed in their absence – they put in place sustainable systems and structure, policies and procedures that do not rely on the cult of personality.

Integrity: If leaders do not act with honour and integrity, they quickly lose the trust and respect of all those around them and will struggle to recruit. Trust is non-negotiable. Ethical leaders possess a strong moral purpose and an overriding sense of honesty. They lead by example at all times and act with conviction.

Ethical leadership in a Covid world

These five principles have always been important. I first wrote about the need for such principles a decade ago when macho school leadership, defined by bullying tactics and high staff attrition, was the craze. However, these principles must now carry particular weight as we seek to rebuild our school communities following the Covid-19 lockdown and the on-going pandemic.

I wrote about how we might adapt our school leadership practices for Covid-19 in SecEd’s recent guide on technology and remote education (SecEd, 2020). I quoted a British Psychological Society report – Back to school: Using psychological perspectives to support re-engagement and recovery (2020) – which says that “research following other community crises have highlighted the importance of clear, open and decisive leadership in building resilient communities”.

The basic principles of good leadership, the report says, are: listen, learn and then act.

In the SecEd guide, I argued that listening and learning are particularly important while we are in the process of rebuilding our schools following the coronavirus lockdown. Despite the many obvious negative consequences of Covid-19, it is, I said, possible to find some positives if only we listen to and learn from all our colleagues and stakeholders.

Indeed, post-traumatic growth theory highlights the potential for positive growth and development as a consequence of trauma and challenging experiences. Having listened and learned, I think now is the time to act.

Staff and students are likely to be feeling vulnerable and may be worried about what school will hold for them in the coming months and years.

Many members of our school communities will have experienced difficulties being locked down and home-schooled and, worse, may have lost loved ones. Some staff and students may have had distressing experiences leading to safeguarding issues or mental health crises. Many will be concerned about the possibility of contracting the virus now they are back in school or may struggle to adapt to our new ways of working.

On top of this, the new national lockdown will only exacerbate many people fears. Now more than ever then, school leaders need to adopt the principles of ethical leadership and act with strong moral purpose.

What can we do?

First, we can adopt ethical leadership behaviours such as leading by example, communicating moral values, making ethical decisions, and practising justice and respect.

Leading by example: Putting ethical leadership into daily practice is about “walking the walk”. Ethical leaders have high expectations for their colleagues but, crucially, they hold themselves to the same standards.

It is important, therefore, that school leaders lead by example in following the Covid rules and obeying the “new normal”; by talking openly about our concerns and putting people at ease about their worries.

School leaders should literally “walk the walk” by providing cover before and after school and at break and lunchtime, as well as during lesson change-over, in order to minimise the number of staff in corridors and to protect teaching and support staff. It is worth considering how school leaders in your context can be more visible at this time of uncertainty and anxiety.

Communicating moral values

Ethical leaders tend to be good communicators. They are comfortable speaking in public, leading meetings and writing communications that clearly articulate what they are trying to convey.

Good relationships between leaders and their teams are built on fairness, integrity, and trust. Ethical leaders are effective at building these relationships via communication. It is important, therefore, that we communicate clearly, concisely and often and keep everyone informed.

At the moment, clear communication with colleagues and with parents/carers is key. The situation is fast-changing, and everyone needs to know and understand what is expected of them and why. We have seen from the government’s own mixed and confused messaging how trust can be easily lost. Schools must try to avoid falling into the same trap. From face coverings to local, and now national, lockdowns, school leaders need to be on top of policy and set out clearly and concisely what is expected of everyone and why these expectations are consistent with the school’s values and principles.

Making ethical decisions

Ethical leaders assess each decision before implementing it in order to make sure that the decision accords with their school’s vision and mission, and values and principles. They only initiate such decisions if the ethical criteria are met.

We should, therefore, ensure that we consult with as broad a range of stakeholders as possible before making decisions that affect people’s work and lives, and then act in the best interests of our students, staff and communities. Sometimes this means being bold and brave and ignoring government advice in favour of doing what it right for our context.

When we communicate our decisions, we should explicitly link them to our school values so that parents/carers know we are acting in good faith and in accordance with our long-held principles.

Practising justice and respect

An ethical leader should always behave with fairness and respect for others. They do not play favourites. Ethical leaders demonstrate respect for others by listening attentively, being compassionate, considering opposing viewpoints fairly, and valuing their contributions equally.

We should, therefore, be patient and understanding, now more than ever because staff and pupils will be anxious and perhaps scared, and we should listen to colleagues’ concerns and fears, and not be dismissive. We need to put our staff first – all our staff not just teachers. We must treat all staff fairly and with compassion and give them the time and reward they so truly deserve.

Keeping our focus

To quote Stephen Covey, we need to focus on “keeping the main thing the main thing”. We should not-burden staff or expect too much too soon. We should stop doing anything that is not essential and remove as many blocks and barriers as we can in order to allow colleagues to concentrate on supporting pupils, both pastorally and academically. This might call for a bonfire of the school calendar and the relaxing of some of our systems and processes including around data and assessment. And finally, we should be kind…


Ethical school leaders routinely recognise and reward success. For ethical leaders, celebrating other pupils’ achievements is an everyday part of what they do rather than an afterthought or rarity.

Ethical leaders also give quality time to people, have an open-door policy – which does not mean being available 24-hours-a-day, but rather being able to meet with staff as soon as possible and listening and responding to what they have to say.

Ethical leaders are protective of their staff, showing empathy, respecting people’s privacy, remembering birthdays, and granting personal leave – without question – when staff have important or urgent personal matters to attend to such as family funerals. They also set as their default position a genuine belief that everybody wishes to do well and will try their best, rather than assuming the worst of people. Kindness and gratitude are, I think, needed now more than ever

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