Everyone Is Watching-Especially the Students

Moral Leadership in the 21st Century: Everyone Is Watching-Especially the Students

Quick, Paul M


Educational leaders continually must be vigilant about their actions as they speak volumes about the values that the leader supports. It is impossible for an educational leader to take an action without generating some comment about how things should be done-which by definition is moral action. What’s more, everyone is watching-especially the students.

This article explores leadership relationships, interrelationships, and interdependence-and how administrative “moral leadership” rests with the institution’s leader. First, it examines the concept of systems thinking to determine how relationships, support structures, and decisions made by school leaders impact the entire school-especially the students and the community at large. Second, it explores and furthers our understanding of moral leadership models by synthesizing concepts in the literature and offers a new paradigm of moral leadership for educational leaders in the 21st century.

The roles of the educational leader are many: coach, teacher, counselor, facilitator, director, and sometimes parent. The tools of the trade are equally varied: counseling, revitalizing, sharing, teaching, leading, and pointing the way. Leading means articulating a vision and then creating the structure for that vision to come to fruition. As an educational leader, one must be willing to serve and to subordinate oneself to the vision and best interests of the organization. Senge (1990, 340) epitomized what educational leadership for the 21st century should be:

The new view of leadership in learning organizations centers on subtler and more important tasks. In a learning organization, leaders are designers, stewards, and teachers. They are responsible for building organizations where people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models-that is, they are responsible for learning.

How do educational leaders act as “stewards” for their respective institutions? What are the practices that make for an ethical and moral educational setting? How do these practices affect students? Do these practices teach our students to act in the manner we intend, or are we teaching unintended lessons? These are the questions that educational leaders must ask themselves as they lead our educational institutions into the 21st century (Beck and Murphy 1997a; 1997b). Failure to answer these important questions in a thoughtful and intelligent manner will result in an increase in moral and ethical difficulties. In the 21st century, more than at any time in our collective past, educational leaders must be moral role models.

Leadership in any endeavor is a moral task but even more so for educational leaders. Not only are educational leaders responsible for the success of their particular institution, but their work also can impact various other institutions now and in the future because those who they lead now will be tomorrow’s leaders. According to Berreth and Berman (1997,25), “Adults need to be moral role models to youth and demonstrate that it is possible to live one’s values and advocate for a more just and responsible society by role-modeling. “

This article is framed conceptually on a review of extant literature. First, a brief discussion of school culture, climate, and community is presented. Next, three principles for educational leaders are introduced, followed by a description of a leadership model for principal actions. Finally, implications for educational administration and concluding statements are presented.

School Climate, Culture, and Community

We can’t have this kind of community and a standards movement that imposes on all schools the same expectations and the same outcomes for learning. …Ifwe continue with standardized standards and assessment, then we place community building at risk and compromise the life-worlds of parents, teachers, students, and communities (Sergiovanni 1999, 75).

Schools need to focus on what Sergiovanni (1999) terms the life-world of the school. The life-world of a school focuses on such things as the culture, climate, and community of the institution. The life-world is in contrast to the system-world (Sergiovanni 1999). The system-world encompasses the political, structural, bureaucratic, and policy aspects of the institution. The life-world focuses on the ends of education while the system-world deals with the means. The life-world deals with the norms, values, and beliefs of an individual school, whereas the system-world is concerned with goals, structures, and procedures. Too frequently, function (life-world) follows form (system-world) rather than form following function.

First and most importantly, a school’s attention must be on the creation of a coherent and inclusive life-world. The school’s constituents must attend to the life-world of the school; otherwise, the system-world will overwhelm it. According to Sergiovanni (1999,7):

Either the life-world determines what the system-world will be like or the system-world will determine what the life-world will be like. Either management systems are uniquely designed to embody and achieve the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students in a particular school or the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students will be determined by the chosen (or more likely state-or district-mandated) management systems.

The life-world of the school must have as its driving purpose the drawing out of the unique potential inherent within each individual. Creating a culture, climate, and community that celebrates each individual’s gifts and talents is a much different task than what is happening in the current system-world driven and dominated schools. Developing a life-world focus demands much of the school.

Nucci (2001, 141) asserted that “schools constitute mini-societies within the larger culture…. They are structured by norms and conventions that frame the affective, personal, and moral elements of the school experience.” The principal is the key player in a school; from the principal, the climate of the school will come. The climate of a school is its moral feeling derived from the values that the principal advocates and makes actionable. The climate significantly impacts the culture. The culture is defined by the practices, both explicit and implicit, in which the constituents of the school are involved. These behaviors may be codified or sanctioned, as in a specific way of addressing grievances within the school, or they may be unspoken assumptions about how one achieves his or her objectives within the community. The climate and culture of the school impacts the type of community that a school will be. The sense of community is defined by how the relationships within the school are created, valued, sustained, and managed.

The responsibility for creating a sense of community within the school lies with the principal. The principal’s actions shape the experiences within the school-both directly and indirectly-affecting and determining the norms and conventions of the institution, giving form to the climate, culture and, ultimately, the community. Schaps (1998,6) stated that a sense of community in school is a “pivotal condition for children’s ethical, social, and emotional development, and also for their academic motivation.”

Understanding that a sense of community strongly influences student development, educational leaders must focus their attention on activities that enhance the sense of community within the school. Bureaucratic initiatives, policies, and procedures are not enough. The leader must create rituals and traditions that symbolically represent the values and culture of the organization and the community. These define for members who they are and how they are to do things. As a product, culture embodies wisdom gained over time from those who came before us. As a process, it is constantly under renewal and recreated as newcomers learn the traditional ways and eventually become teachers themselves (Bolman and Deal 1997). These rituals and traditions give life to the values espoused by the leader but, more importantly, become the foundation on which the climate, culture, and community are grounded. These activities teach lessons to all involved in the school community.

Principles for Forming a Moral Community

The educational leader needs to have knowledge of his or her own values and the ability to translate that knowledge into action. Evans (1996,185) maintained, “Integrity is a fundamental consistency between one’s values, goals, and actions. … At the simplest level it means standing for something, having a significant commitment, and exemplifying this commitment in your behavior.”

Integrity and Authenticity

For principals, the first moral lesson they teach is that they have valuable beliefs on which they are willing to take action-demonstrating integrity and practicing authenticity (Evans 1996; Hodgkinson 1991). If leaders do not act from a place of integrity, then their authenticity will be questioned (Evans 1996). Authentic leaders are those who are trusted because they fulfill their obligations, meet their commitments, and are trustworthy (Evans 1996).

For the educational leader, the primary principle of moral leadership and courage is complemented by authenticity: acting in accordance with one’s beliefs. For example, a principal who believes in Kohlberg’s concept of a “just community” (Power, Higgins, and Kohlberg in Nucci 2001,158) may create a structure for joint decision making and democratic participation that involves all stakeholders, thereby demonstrating his or her belief in cooperative power sharing. Such a structure communicates to the community a strong message about the leader and that the climate, culture, and community are founded on such values. .

Balance between Ethic of justice and Ethic of Care

The second principle is balance-balance between the ethic of justice and the ethic of care. Too often, educational leaders align themselves with one ethic to the exclusion of the other when what is needed is a balance. More often than not, a focus on one ethic is an unconscious decision; therefore, the educational leader must make a conscious choice to find the balance.

Achieving this balance can be difficult. The ethic of justice focuses on issues of “oppression, problems stemming from inequality, and the moral ideal… of reciprocity or equal respect” (Gilligan et al. 1988, xvii). Though a focus on the ethic of justice is necessary for a morally healthy community, it is not sufficient. The ethic of care also must be actively pursued. Gilligan et al. (1988, xvii) asserted that “from the perspective of someone seeking or valuing care, relationship connotes responsiveness or engagement, a resiliency of connection that is symbolized by a network or web.”

Linking these two ideals is the test of the educational leader as a moral role model. Starrat (1997) asserted that leadership must deal explicitly with formal ethical concerns. he explored the ethic of justice, ethic of care, and ethic of critique, and argued that they are interdependent and complement one another’s deficiencies. The ethic of justice concerns the universal application of principles of justice among individuals in society. The ethic of care “compels us to be proactively sensitive to another person, extending ourselves beyond duty and convenience to offer other persons our concern and attention” (Starrat 1997, 99). The ethic of critique calls upon us to speak out “against unjust rules and laws and social arrangements on behalf of those principles of human and civil rights, of brother and sisterhood as human beings, on behalf of a common humanity which is violated through discrimination, disenfranchisement, and an arbitrary denial of equal treatment” (Starrat 1997, 99).

Education is primarily about relationships. The ethic of care supports this notion (Duke and Grogan 1997). An ethically responsible educational leader focuses on relationships and understanding the interrelatedness of all stakeholders within the community while simultaneously creating a climate in which each individual is free from oppression, is treated with equality, and the “golden rule” is enacted in relationships between members of the community. Working with others in a just manner across time and space requires a wider and more complex lens; what is needed is a systems perspective.

Systems Thinking

The final principle for educational leaders is systems thinking. Senge et al. (2000) maintained that systems thinking is a unique way of looking at problems and goals as components of larger structures rather than as isolated events. Senge et al. (2000, 78) stated, “A system is any perceived whole whose elements ‘hang together’ because they continually affect each other.” Linking the ethic of justice with the ethic of care in an authentic manner to affect the school community should be approached from a systemic perspective: an understanding that the leaders’ words, actions, and/ or inactions and his or her relationships have an impact across the entire system.

This knowledge forces the educational leader to reconsider his or her role. The days of unilateral decision making are over. A leader focusing on the systems perspective must rely on others, affirming the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of the stakeholders within the community. Fullan (2003) asserted that the moral purpose of schools is the foundation from which it is built-that everyone has a stake in the quality of schools, and education is everyone’s business. Fullan (2003, 3) continued, “The quality of an education system relates directly to the quality of life that people enjoy (whether as parents, employers, or citizens), with a strong public education system as the cornerstone of a civil, prosperous, and democratic society.” Working closely with others and building constructive relationships becomes key. Senge et al. (2000, 83) ascertained that systems often evolve from the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the individuals these systems represent. They (2000, 83) stated, “That’s because our mental models, our theories about the way the world works, influence our actions, which in turn influence the interactions of the system.” Combining the systems perspective with authenticity, integrity, and balance is the leader’s task.

A Leadership Model for Principals’ Actions

Though there is no specific formulaic way for the educational leader to exercise all three principles, one possibility is offered. The principal should focus first on authentic relationships, beginning his or her tenure at a school by cultivating relationships and engaging all stakeholders in a dialogue about the function of the school. As the principal authentically engages members of the community in dialogue, he or she is modeling behavior for others in the community, creating values that will affect the climate and culture of the school. These first values should be: relationships matter, listening matters, and everyone has a voice. all organizational members have potential to nurture a reasoned dialogue. We can argue that leadership is “doing responsibly” toward an agreed upon direction, especially in a democracy where all stakeholders are invited to plan, carry out, and assess leadership.

As dialogue continues with stakeholders of the community, the questioning of current structures and practices should begin. How were these structures and practices created? What purposes do they serve? Are they still useful? Have they caused unintended consequences? Using the ethics of critique, the leader begins to model the lessons of inquisitiveness and curiosity-two of the most important qualities for any learning community. According to Senge et al. (2000,417), “Learning and the acceptance of uncertainty that is always part of learning are part of the culture or the genetic code of the system. . . . Leaders expect themselves and others to be uncertain, inquiring, expectant of surprise, and perhaps a bit joyful about confronting the unknown” and questioning the known.

There is one caveat, however, about this aspect of the process. It must be done with a degree of reverence for current practices, because they are a part of the present climate, culture, and community. Even if stakeholders are uncomfortable with some of the current practices, they are “theirs,” and to question them in a manner that could be perceived as disrespectful may seem like the leader is undermining their very personal foundation as well as that of the community.

The next step in this process is the most crucial. Because the leader has been clear and open from the beginning, the community will not be surprised by the next phase. In fact, people will likely expect it. It is at this point that the need for change is genuinely examined. The educational leader’s authenticity will be most important during this time. Practices that are discovered to be ineffectual and/or archaic will have to be replaced. The educational leader must focus his or her energies on the synthesis of the principles. As reiterated by Senge et al. (2000, 414), “When faced with such complexity, convening the appropriate people in the system and facilitating their conversations and learning is called for.”

Decisions about what needs to be done, by whom, and when, must be considered in the context of the ethic of justice and the ethic of care and from a systems perspective. Some of the challenging issues that need to be addressed include how to wade through the daily realities of the school system while exercising and modeling moral courage, guidance, and behavior. How will these changes assist all students in fully developing their individual potential? How do the proposed changes empower stakeholders, and which ones? Are some individuals having their power diminished? Are all individuals and perspectives being respected? What are the long-term benefits and/or consequences of the action across the entire system? Will this positively affect relationships within the community? What are the costs and benefits from the proposed change? Many questions must be considered; but if the leader has done his or her groundwork, the constituents will trust that the decisions were arrived at in a competent manner. Heifetz defined leadership (in Senge et al. 2000, 414) as “the ability to mobilize people to tackle tough problems.” The task of the educational leader is to constantly review and evaluate current practices and structures and, where needed, establish new practices and structures that will create the intended climate, culture, and community of the school. This process of constant evaluation and reevaluation allows the community to continually question itself and its practices, ensuring that the community is functioning in the intended manner and in the best interests of the students.

As educational leaders attend to the three principles of moral leadership-authenticity, balance, and systems thinking-they are teaching lessons to all within the community, especially the students (Sergiovanni 1992; 2001). The principal develops a community in which “adults exemplify positive moral values in their work with one another and with the students . . . modeling behavior by developing codes of conduct for their own work” and their interactions with one another (Berreth and Berman 1997, 25).

This task cannot be overstated-it is the very foundation of a vital education. Educational leaders frequently focus on curriculum, policy making, and other bureaucratic functions to the exclusion of the truly vital function of education: assisting students in becoming the very best people that they can be. Because each individual is a thinking, feeling, and acting person attempting to make meaning of his or her life, education must focus on shaping the whole child. The learning community must be structured so that all actions of the school demonstrate the values that the community espouses. Sizer and Sizer (1999, 17-18) supported this notion of a unified culture where there is room for “the appropriate expression of individual convictions . . . that school is about helping young people to gain the habit of seeing the virtue of such a balance, not only at school but in all the years that follow…. One is true to oneself. One also is true to one’s communities . .. and each citizen must find his or her most defensible balance. School exists to help along that process.”

This holistic focus must guide educational leaders as role models. A leader must exemplify this balance in all that he or she does, assisting others in the process, allowing for mistakes, but always guiding individuals to the appropriate path. The educational leader as moral role model must be thoughtful, caring, and the intellectually inquisitive guiding force of the learning community. Sizer and Sizer (1999) suggested that to find the covenant of any school, all that’s required is to see how people spend their time, the relationships they build, and how they approach ideas. “Look for the contradictions between words and practice, with the fewer the better . . . try to estimate the frequency and the honesty of its deliberations . . . though it will always want to spruce up for visitors, its hour-by-hour functioning is what is important. . . judge the school not on what it says but on how it keeps (Sizer and Sizer 1999,18).

Implications for Practice

“Democracy is first about substance-about values, principles, ideas, rights, responsibilities, and a sense of the common good. When the fate of one’s own children is at stake, each individual should have a direct say” (Sergiovanni 1999, 102).

The current educational landscape is dominated by political concerns and bureaucratic efficiency. The system-world is overwhelming the life-world of schools. The loss is the fundamental truth that schooling is an interpersonal experience between teacher and learner. It cannot be reduced to a moment-in-time snapshot-a test score. While educational leaders must navigate the muddy waters in a political environment, they must not lose sight of the moral obligation that their job entails. As a moral enterprise, education must stay above political power plays and ensure that all individuals have an equal voice in the educational conversation. Maintaining a proper balance between the life-world and the system-world, without denying either, is becoming the responsibility of schools and the communities they represent. Sergiovanni (1999, 182) summarized, “Achieving this balance at all levels of government from the statehouse to the schoolhouse may be the most important purpose of leadership.”

It is inarguable that education is inherently political. However, in the current arena of high stakes accountability initiated by economic, political, social, and community pressures, education has become so politicized that educational leaders need to be politicians as well as educators. Schools are infiltrated by coalitions-groups that have their own beliefs, values, and interests. It takes strong political skills for school leaders to bring about the necessary consensus and commitment to make schools work well for everyone. As Sergiovanni (1999, 166) concluded, “The current focus on standardized tests, accountability, and efficiency has caused educational leaders to be more concerned with management than leadership and that does not work well for everyone.” Surface appearance in the form of student test scores has become the purpose of schooling. The system-world has taken over and the true purpose of education-the drawing out of the inherent potential in each individual-is getting lost. What then is an educational leader to do? How can a leader maneuver through this ferociously politicized landscape and still maintain the appropriate ethical/moral practice and create institutions that are life-world driven?

These questions can force leaders into behavior that they may not want to demonstrate. Behavior that is concerned with securing political power may be contrary to a school leader’s understanding of what is ethical/moral. The educational leader must use an ethic of critique to identify power inequities and correct them. Political concerns will mount as the leader questions current power arrangements. The ethically just leader, however, must work to evaluate and discard the old and inequitable, and create new structures, policies, and procedures that are just and fair to everyone. John Dewey (in Tyack 1997, 22) said, “We need not only education in democracy, but also democracy in education … for the welfare of the young, thoughtful citizens must participate in the politics of public schooling.”

It also is the school leader’s responsibility to share the power of their office to democratize the institution. Parents, students, and communities need to have a voice in how education is practiced. According to Sergiovanni (1999, 167):

This leadership is moral because it emphasizes bringing diverse people into common cause by making the school a covenantal community. Covenantal communities have at their center shared ideas, principles, and purposes that provide a powerful source of authority for leadership practice. In covenantal communities, the purpose of leadership is to create a shared followership. Leaders in covenantal communities function as head followers.

Decisions about the school need to be handled at the school site and with the local community. This becomes a political issue because by giving power to the school and local community, some other institution, the state government for example, must relinquish it. Sergiovanni (1999,105) asserted, “Localism counts, but then again it does not. It counts in rhetoric as politicians and policy makers talk about the sovereign rights of states but at the same time deny the rights of communities within the states.” For a school to serve the best interests of its community, the community must have the power and voice to dictate how the school will function. Fullan (2003,47) maintained that “the environment cannot be improved only from the top. . . . The top can provide a vision, policy incentives, mechanisms for interaction, coordination, and monitoring, but to realize the vision, there must be lateral development.”

The ethical/moral leader uses the political processes available, while focusing on the creation of the educational institution and practices that are needed. Fullan (2003) asserted that leaders need to realize they are in charge of redefining their new roles as more of a chief operating officer of a larger enterprise-the Public Education System.

Synthesizing the Ethics in Practice

The life-world driven school is created by evaluating (critique) current values, norms, beliefs, and structures, as well as the purpose of the institution. This evaluation unearths both implicit and explicit practices that are unfair and unjust (justice) and attempts to replace them with more equitable and nondiscriminatory practices. These new practices center on positive functioning based on the collaboration and inclusive participation of all constituents (care). Starrat (1991, 198) explained:

The ethic of critique assumes a point of view about social justice and human rights and about the way communities ought to govern themselves. The ethic of justice assumes an ability to perceive injustice in the social order as well as some minimal level of caring relationships in that social order. The ethic of caring does not ignore the demands of community governance issues, but claims that caring is the ideal fulfillment of all social relationships, even though most relationships among members of a community function according to a more remote form of caring.

For the moral leader, blending the three ethics is a monumentally important task. The establishment of a life-world focused school depends on it. Without the educational leader facilitating the evaluation and consideration of an educational program that is purpose driven, the system-world will overwhelm the process. The leader uses the ethical paradigm described above as a map to create an institution characterized by power-sharing, equitable treatment of all within the community, caring and compassionate interpersonal relationships, and purpose-driven focus.

Educational leaders need to:

* articulate a vision and create the structure for that vision to come to fruition, not just in words but also in actions;

* be symbols of the institutional values of the school that they lead and lead with moral courage and purpose in support of all schools;

* be cognizant of the symbolic nature of their position when taking action;

* be role models for students, faculty, and other schools and districts;

* teach lessons by what they support and how they act; and

* be conscious of the possible implications of their decisions and actions, for surely everyone is watching-especially the students.


The principal as a moral role model must work to create and sustain climate, culture, and community-a “life-world” that exemplifies the very values that he or she espouses. Political, social, and economic pressures are placed more than ever on school leaders to deal with the everyday realities of schools (i.e., accountability, fiscal constraints, drugs, vandalism, violence, dealing with irate parents, bullying, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, verbal assaults, and sabotage). These pressures create real problems for schools and school leaders. In complex societies, producing and sustaining a vital public school system is a tall order. It cannot be done without a dedicated, highly competent teaching force-teachers in numbers, working together for the continuous betterment of the schools. One cannot get teachers working like this without leaders at all levels guiding and supporting the process (Fullan 2003).

Through the three principles of moral leadership-integrity/authenticity, balance, and systemic thinking-the educational leader can successfully create that lifeworld. As he or she acts, so he or she instructs, guides, and leads. True leaders understand that their “actions speak louder than words,” and that they must “practice what they preach” for inevitably they “shall reap what they sow.”

School climate, culture, and community are direct reflections of leadership. The relationships created, the structures supported, and the decisions made impact the entire school. The leader must consciously and intentionally take actions that are in the best interests of the students (authenticity/integrity), while modeling the importance of caring and just relationships (balance), and understanding that decisions have consequences across the entire system (systems thinking). This gives the leader the opportunity to cooperate with all stakeholders in the community, assuring them that the school reflects the communities’ intended goal: to assist young people in fully realizing their potential with the understanding that they are connected to others through a web of interrelationships.


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Paul M. Quick is a veteran educator in the independent school system. He has held teaching, coaching, and administrative positions. he is a doctoral candidate at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. His research interest lies in the area of moral/ethical leadership in education, focusing primarily on the impact of leadership behavior on the functioning of the school site.

Anthony H. Normore is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Florida International University in Miami. A former public school educator, he currently writes and conducts research in leadership development, organizational change, accountability of school administrators, and values and ethics in educational administration.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Summer 2004

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