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Ethical leadership – What it means and why it matters

Many school leaders want to demonstrate kindness and empathy – but as Armando Di-Finizio observes, what really matters is being consistent in your ethical judgements, and examining what your ethics actually are…

Armando Di Finizio
by Armando Di Finizio
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To my mind, leadership isn’t about being kind. It’s about being ethical in your decision making and day-to-day actions.

By nature, I’m someone who has always wanted people to like me. Some might call that a failing, especially in leaders. If you’re always making decisions based on whether those at the receiving end will continue to like you or not, you won’t always make the correct choices.

I quickly learned that early on in my teaching career. I wasn’t there to make my students like me, but to help them to learn whatever that day’s topic was, in as effective and engaging a way as possible.

I could have interpreted ‘effective’ as having them sit them in rows participating in rote learning, while ‘engaging’ them through threats of detentions and letters home to parents if they lifted their heads from their books. A few years earlier, as a pupil in Scotland, many of my own lessons had been just like this, only with the threat of the ‘taws’ (leather belt) across the hand to keep me engaged.

That general approach didn’t feel right to me as a pupil, nor as a new teacher. And so my students took advantage of me during those first few years as I became very inconsistent, lurching from being an authoritarian one minute to trying to be their best friend the next.

It took a year or two to finally find the right balance, which involved applying ethical principles – not that I realised this at the time. Concepts such as fairness, equality, rights and responsibilities, empathy and compassion began to inform my lessons, underpinning all that I did. The process took a while, and at times of stress these virtues would often quickly vanish, but the more consistent I became, the more my lessons began to improve.

Hiding behind the rulebook

Later, as a headteacher, I again struggled at first with my natural tendency to want people to like me. This proved especially difficult when faced with a failing school, where some staff were consistently failing to manage their classes or certain areas of responsibility, even after multiple attempts at supporting them.

Placing a member of staff on capability procedures was never something I enjoyed, so I’d put it off for as long as possible. I’d also avoid ‘difficult’ formal conversations regarding concerns I had about certain colleagues. It was far easier to gossip and moan about such situations to my senior team, rather than take concrete action.

In schools, there will typically be a set of criteria that specifies our expectations for staff and students. Failure to meet these then result in capability or disciplinary procedures for teachers and sanctions for students, and potential expulsion in the most extreme cases.

It’s commonly assumed that these outwardly black and white policies, procedures and expectations make it easier for teachers and leaders to enforce standards and implement disciplinary measures fairly and consistently. But do they give due consideration to the interests of those being held to account?

I accept that today’s litigious culture necessitates the need for school-wide policies that protect us, but I’d also argue that they should be used as a reference, and only when required. The ethics underpinning our actions should always be considered first. This form of ‘ethical leadership’ will allow all those ‘grey area’ mitigating circumstances to be fully examined, and prevent us from moving someone up the disciplinary ladder too quickly (or, indeed, too slowly).

In practice, I’d define ethical leadership as encompassing the following…

1. Consciousness and curiosity

When asked what principle should underpin ethical leadership in schools, a common response will be something akin to ‘Putting students first’. However, this becomes more complex when we try to distinguish between actions that are utilitarian (i.e. resulting in the greatest good or value for the greatest number), and those that consider the kind of individual rights utilitarian actions tend to miss.

For example, I’ve worked with many children in deprived schools who had multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and who would tend to disrupt lessons more often than children brought up in more stable backgrounds. Following the ‘greater good’ argument to the letter would condemn these children to a constant churn of sanctions, potentially leading to a cycle of disengagement and ultimately exclusion.

An ethical leadership approach, on the other hand, would involve encouraging staff to look at each child as an individual, and ask questions such as, ‘What are we doing to support this child across the school?’ We can sometimes pour too much of our limited resource into one child, so it’s vital that this balancing act is constantly re-examined.

In terms of staff management, the ‘greater good’ for the children would be to remove all failing teachers straight away. We obviously don’t do this, often due to those aforementioned policies and procedures – but we can still strike an effective balance and ask the right kind of questions.

Has this teacher received any professional development, or undergone any performance reviews within the past few years? What have I personally done to support this colleague? Do I know this colleague well enough? Are there any external mitigating factors that might be affecting their performance?

Ethical leadership thus involves interrogating the morality of your own actions, and demonstrating the curiosity needed to find alternative solutions. Before seizing on the ‘greater good’ option, ask questions that will take into account the individual and force you to be honest with yourself, your own abilities and actions.

2. Modelling behaviours

To what extent is the support you offer proactive? At my school, we try to model the behaviours we want to see. For example, we expect pupils to be punctual, so are our teachers arriving on time for every lesson? We don’t want pupils using phones in class, so all staff will ignore their phones when they buzz in their pockets.

Effective ethical leaders will always model the behaviours they want to see in their staff – whether it’s timely lesson changeovers, picking up litter, remaining calm in a crisis, not shouting or consistent use of professional language.

3. Transparent principles

We have a responsibility to ensure our students leave us with a passport for life. Working alongside parents, we want to instil in them the confidence, aspirations and general wherewithal to use that passport effectively and go on to flourish.

The ethical leader will be careful to explore their own values and principles, and question whether they’re putting students’ needs first. Below are two key principles to which our school subscribes, and the thought processes that my staff and I followed when forming them:

• We want our school to be community focused, within an environment that young people themselves want to attend daily – not because they’re forced to by law, but because the school belongs to them too, and plays a meaningful part in their lives. We believe in developing and maintaining a sense of belonging.

• We want to address the factors that put young people off attending. Initially, we discussed the tension between staff and students when a student did something wrong, or was asked to do something they didn’t particularly want to do. Following further discussion, we acknowledged that young people are still developing and will therefore make mistakes, and that it’s important we accept that fact while helping them through this period of their lives.

The process of exploring and forming values such as these must be carried out in partnership with staff. Ethical leadership in any institution or organisation requires shared values developed collaboratively with those you lead, which will then be regularly revisited, reviewed and evaluated.

Leadership isn’t simply about being kind, since being kind can easily conceal a false virtuosity. Ethical leadership enables leaders to be genuinely kind when appropriate. It carries with it all the values and principles that will support, nurture and guide those we lead and manage – in an honest way, which won’t leave those you lead guessing as to your intentions, or struggling to interpret your actions. Ethical Leadership works!

Armando Di-Finizio (@difinizioa) has taught at seven schools in deprived areas of London, Bristol and Cardiff, and successfully led three schools from being among the lowest performing in the country to achieving outcomes well above expectations

His new book, A Head Full of Ethos: A holistic guide to developing and sustaining a positive school culture, is available now (£18.99, Crown House Publishing)

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