John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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2.Leadership is a moral activity

There is no leadership decision-making process that does not have moral implications. Leadership can never be ‘morally neutral’; as was noted previously Bennis argues that leadership is about ‘doing the right things’ and that implies leadership has to be rooted in an explicit ethical framework, consistent personal values that inform personal and professional behaviour. There does appear to be a correlation between an explicit and consensually based moral code and organisational success:

The high quality and performance of Finland’s educational system cannot be divorced from the clarity, characteristics of, and broad consensus about the country’s broader social vision . . . There is compelling clarity about and commitment to inclusive, equitable and innovative social values beyond as well as within the educational system. (Pont et al 2008)



. . .  for
 the majority, the values based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and ‘guide to life’ provided by the RRSA (Rights Respecting School Award) has had a significant and positive influence on the school ethos, relationships, inclusivity, understanding of the wider world and the well-being of the school community, according to the adults and young people in the evaluation schools. (Sebba and Robinson 2010)


 What is contentious in any debate about the role of values in society is the definition of the ‘right things’. One simple expression of the ethical basis of contemporary school leadership might be found in the formulation that leadership is about the three “E’s’ – Equity, Excellence and Effectiveness. In combination these might be seen as the basis for arguing that school leadership is essentially about securing social justice:

Equity – it is not enough to ensure that every child goes to school, every child has the right to go to a good school and have access to the most appropriate teaching and learning.

Excellence – there has to be a commitment to ensuring that the school system operates to secure the optimum outcomes for every learner and that there is a clear understanding of the nature of excellent outcomes and strategies to ensure that all may access them.

Effectiveness – resources are managed in such a way as to maximise their impact on the achievement of equity and excellence, for example the most effective teachers work with the most vulnerable children.

The work of leaders is essentially about taking decisions and solving problems – the key hypothesis here is that there is no decision or solution that is morally neutral – leadership is about a continuous process of exercising choices all of which have moral implications. There are a range of potential moral dilemmas facing school leaders, for example:

·         The evidence that banding, streaming and setting are only of benefit to those students placed in higher groups – for the others the impact can be highly negative. (Higgins et al 2010)

·         The need to deploy the most effective teachers with the most vulnerable learners. (Sutton Trust 2011)

·         The very clear evidence that certain teaching and learning strategies are more effective than others and therefore professional autonomy may be less significant than securing consistently high quality teaching and learning. (Bloom 1984) (Hattie 2009)

·         Leaders are at their optimum effectiveness when they are actively involved in, and give priority to the learning and development of teaches. (Robinson 2011)

A broader issue emerges from the idea of the leader as model – in the school environment the language and behaviour of school leaders, and all adults, is a powerful source of what might constitute the right things. A key precept of most ethical systems is the importance of  ‘do as I do’ rather than ‘do as I say’. Leadership should work through consent derived from modelling and exemplification rather than direction and imposition. In essence the medium is the message. Law (2006) provides a model for the moral development of young people – if such a model is to work then it will have to be exemplified through the behaviour of leaders and all members of the school community.  The morally confident and competent person is able to:

·         reveal and question underlying assumptions,

·         figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view,

·         spot and diagnose faulty reasoning,

·         weigh up evidence fairly and impartially,

·         make a point clearly and concisely,

·         take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,

·         argue without personalizing a dispute,

·         look at issues form the point of view of others, and

·         question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings

To secure morally confident schools requires morally confident leaders who are able to implement the skills and strategies identified by Law. That proposition raises interesting issues for the development of leaders and how leadership actually works in the school.



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