I have been reading a lot recently about ethical leadership. It coincided with preparing to speak at the fifth UK #WomenEd Unconference back in October. I haven’t been reading just for that purpose though, it is something that interests me and therefore I want to know more. The more I read, the more questions I have.
The Framework for Ethical Leadership is relatively new to the educational landscape but I have to ask – why did we need a Framework for Ethical Leadership? Why did we need a commission in the first place to explore the principles which followed later? Why are there so many leaders and teachers talking about toxic schools, or “lemon” schools as I heard them referred to recently? It took me a while to work out why “lemon” but I think it means that a teacher thought they have found a good one but it turned out to be a lemon. What a sad and sorry state of affairs.
“I feel really strongly that it is possible to lead with trust, respect and dignity without compromising on high standards and a passion for excellence.”
In my session at the unconference I described some of my own experience of good and bad leadership and how I have and continue to develop my own expertise. There were a lot of nods in the room when I gave some examples of where I haven’t been treated kindly or with respect. When I explained some of the things I try and do, it felt blindingly obvious, yet for so many in the room, it wasn’t their experience. I described my approach to flexible working, to support women returning from maternity leave, some who are still feeding their babies. I can’t help but wonder why some people choose to make life hard for women during what is a very challenging time. I explained that my starting point is always that people are coming from good intent; no one sets out to be a “bad” teacher.
Reading about ethical leadership and discovering the environments that people are operating in is making me think hard about purpose, vision and values. As a leader, there are always challenges to be faced. The students who aren’t quite meeting expectations, staff who are developing their practice or parents who don’t agree with a decision the school has made. Some challenges are easier to deal with than others but each and every time, I am trying to ensure that people are treated fairly, in an open and transparent manner and shown kindness and respect. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes but when that happens, is there humanity? Support? Guidance when it’s needed?
“The very least we can do is be kind and show people respect. If we are delivering a hard message it can be done with humanity.”
I have been talking to our students and staff about ethical leaders too. We want our young people to understand how to lead others with a set of values that are ethically sound.
I heard Carolyn Roberts (Chair of the Ethical Leadership Commission) speak recently and she makes an excellent point; everything we do, we do twice. Once as in our role as public servants and whilst we are doing that, we are a constant role model for young people. If we want the next generation to be kind and respectful leaders, we have to demonstrate it time and time again. Our students need to see in us the type of behaviour we want from them. If we don’t role model it for them – how will they learn how to behave?
The same goes for our leadership teams. If we don’t talk about these values and consciously develop them in different contexts and circumstances, we will never get better at dealing with challenging situations. We need to discuss it, practice it and get better at it. It’s hard!
The more I read the more convinced I become that there is another way for the profession. It is possible to create a culture of excellence within a climate of trust and respect. I think we all need a little more kindness and no more lemons. Schools should be what they say they are – places where people learn, grow and develop and no-one can do that effectively in a culture of fear and distrust.