Be Ethical: Crucial Characteristics of Leaders of Integrity, Part II 

By Don Parker 

Leaders often are faced with the choice of doing what they know is necessary to increase equity or succumbing to the pressure of those who prefer the status quo. 

Leader integrity influences ethical behavior within the school community. Ethical leaders serve as role models, guiding others to make principled decisions that prioritize equity and fairness. By consistently aligning their actions with their val¬ues, leaders foster a culture of ethical conduct among staff and students. This culture, in turn, enhances trust, cooperation, and a shared sense of responsibility, creating fertile ground for collaboration and collective action in pursuit of equity goals. 

This series explores the multi¬faceted ways that leader integrity impacts school equity. By under¬standing the pivotal role of leader integrity, school leaders can harness its transformative power to create inclusive, just, and equitable educa¬tional environments for all learners. 

The series highlights the four crucial characteristics of leaders of integrity: (1) courageous, (2) ethi¬cal, (3) collaborative, and (4) action oriented, as it relates to fostering a more equitable educational envi-ronment. This installment features Ethics, which play a vital role in school leader integrity, guiding their decision-making processes to ensure fairness, justice, and inclusivity in educational practices. 


In the pursuit of promoting equi¬ty at their school, a school leader’s ethics play a pivotal role in guiding their actions and decisions. Uphold¬ing ethical principles requires the leader to put aside what may be popular or convenient and, instead, prioritize what is right and just for the sake of promoting school-wide equity. This entails a willingness to take risks, even if it means potential¬ly losing their job or facing backlash from stakeholders who may resist change. 

By remaining steadfast in their ethical stance, school leaders demonstrate a commitment to challenging systemic inequities and creating a more inclusive and equitable educational environment. They recognize that true progress in achieving equity may require mak¬ing difficult and unpopular deci¬sions, but they are driven by a moral compass that puts the well-being and success of every student at the forefront. It is through their unwav¬ering dedication to doing what is right, even in the face of adversity, that school leaders can make a last¬ing impact in advancing equity and ensuring all students have equal opportunities to thrive. 

When a school is interviewing for a new principal, you might hear the phrase, “We are looking for the right fit.” School leaders also have to consider if a school and its commu¬nity is the “right fit” for them. If it’s not, there is a higher likelihood of clashing views and disagreements regarding what is in the best interest of the school. 

This is endemic when school leaders take a job out of financial necessity while knowing that the position may not be a good fit. Unfortunately, many school districts that aren’t committed to school equity want to hire principals who will maintain the status quo instead of those who understand that inequities exist in schools and are committed to establishing equi¬table environments. School leaders who in their heart of hearts are committed to providing equity will become increasingly frustrated when working in a district that does not encourage or support them in those endeavors. 

In their book Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, Gus Lee and Diane Elliott-Lee (2006) offer acts of integrity to process being disheartened and frustrated a school leader is committed to equity but other stakeholders are unwilling, oppositional, or resistant to equity, and how to navigate this dilemma. They suggest that you honor your conscience when discerning right from wrong. By honoring your conscience, you stay true to your¬self. They also stress doing what is right, regardless of the risk to self. This is especially difficult in politi¬cally charged environments such as school districts and systems. Many of us have witnessed school decisions that were clearly not in the best interest of students, but more in the interest of adults. 

Similar to the business world, personal agendas drive decisions, often at the expense of what is right. Personal agendas and profit-driven decisions can sometimes overshad¬ow what is right, leading to negative consequences in various sectors. In the business world, a prime example of this is when companies prioritize maximizing profits over ethical considerations. For instance, a corporation might knowingly engage in environmentally harmful practices to cut costs and boost its bottom line, disregarding the long-term impact on the planet and local communities. 

In health care, a similar scenario can occur when pharmaceutical companies prioritize financial gains over the well-being of patients. One instance of this is the unethical marketing and over-prescription of addictive pain medications, such as opioids, by pharmaceutical compa¬nies. Despite the known risks and potential for addiction, profit-driven decisions led to the widespread dis¬tribution of these drugs, resulting in a devastating opioid crisis and countless lives affected. 

In the field of education, per¬sonal agendas and profit motives can manifest in various ways. One example is the push for privatization and for-profit schools, where finan¬cial interests take precedence over the quality of education provided to students. In some cases, private entities operating schools may prior¬itize financial gains and cost-cutting measures at the expense of hiring qualified educators, ensuring equi¬table resources, and meeting the students’ diverse needs, ultimately compromising the quality of educa¬tion they receive. 

Defending what one thinks is right is not always the most advan¬tageous thing to do. Most educators I know are not willing to lose their job, salary, benefits, or career over making a decision they know is right but against what the majority wants to see happen. Unfortunate¬ly, this is the position that a lot of school leaders find themselves in when it comes to establishing equi¬ty. They want to do what is in the best interest of their students, but also are hesitant to do so when their opinion is unpopular among those who wield power in their district or school community. This is why ethi¬cal educational leaders are needed at all levels. 

Raymond Pierce describes the beliefs and actions of an ethical leader working toward social justice as someone who “deeply embraces the critical connection between education and opportunity.” Eth¬ical leaders build school cultures governed by fair, clearly articulated expectations rather than cultures driven by personalities or politics. True integrity means not having the luxury of leaving your principles at the door whenever it is convenient. 

Leaders with strong integrity measure each decision before imple¬menting it to make sure the decision is an equitable one. Displaying integrity and a commitment to equi¬ty as a school leader in education is driven by an unfaltering belief in the dignity and rights of others. If lead¬ers compromise integrity, an insidi¬ous sense of unfairness and injustice pervades. 


Leading with integrity and enhancing equity is hard work. School leaders of integrity working to enhance equity don’t do the work for awards and accolades; they do the work because they are dedicated to equity and meeting the needs of their students and staff. They are the foundation holding the many dif-ferent aspects of the school together. When the principal is operating as the integral chassis, other gears turn¬ing toward enhanced school equity also will spin smoothly. 
Don Parker, Ed.D., is a transformational keynote speaker and professional development provider. The first in the series, on Courage, is available in the November/December 2023 issue of the Journal. Read the next installment Crucial Characteristics of Leaders of Integrity in the next Journal.