ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission: Integrity and wisdom

In the Framework for Ethical Leadership we propose an educational reworking of the seven principles of public life  and six virtues. Integrity is one of the principles, wisdom is one of our virtues and we express them this way: 

Integrity: School and college leaders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships

Wisdom: Leaders should have experience, humility and self-control.

You might hope to wait years for a sticky ethical dilemma, but you shouldn’t be surprised if three come along at once. A permanent exclusion, a technical error in a disciplinary hearing, potential cheating, in three days. I’m pretty old, so none of them are new but each of them is complicated and all of them require thinking.

How do you tackle such dilemmas? Natural justice, fair investigation, establishing the balance of probabilities. Taking action when the issue has serious implications for the integrity of the community. Simple principles, enacted calmly in the cool hour of thought.

The windiest part of being a new leader at the top of your tree is the establishment of a frame of reference for ‘normal’. Some schools have a lot of written procedures or quality standards to make expectations clear. Some have none and you have to generate them pronto.  Some schools are stable over long periods of time with very low staff turnover and can rely on custom and practice without the documentation.  All of us have rules to follow at the sharp end: exam board regulations, PX rules, staff procedures.

Built-in reproach

We want to be fair with children and colleagues so we agonise over hard decisions and worry about all aspects of them. Every decision comes with a built-in reproach: is that right or fair or just? Am I being too hard or too weak? Have I got systems that work? Should I have foreseen it? Could I have prevented it? Am I up to the job? 

The advantage of ageing is that you may build up a bit of case law, in diaries, notebooks, files and your head. Like Sherlock on TV, previous cases shoot across your eyeballs: this child, that event, those parents. You summon up past mistakes and prescient good judgement and you make a decision based on experience and the facts. 

And if you haven’t been at it for long, you ring up someone you trust (and the Hotline) and steel yourself to make a wise judgment. And you never, never take a brash, rash decision because you’re scared of looking thoughtful or you want to look decisive.  Decisions have to be right and timely: loud and quick isn’t an acceptable alternative.

Good leadership and right judgement is built on wisdom, and the principle that underpins it is integrity. Integrity is wisdom with consistency: reliably right action, such that you can be certain that what this person says or advises will be the right thing to do. It’s what you want when you pick up the phone to take advice on the three sticky dilemmas in a week.


The seven principles of public life add a specificity to integrity. They require us never to put ourselves in a position where our integrity is compromised, never to start to blur the line between what’s good for the young people, school or college and what’s good for me, you, your family or friends. They require that relationships and interests are declared and resolved. That’s an output of integrity which is based not on self-centredness, but a self-centreing-ness.  So our virtue of wisdom includes experience, humility and self-control.   If you’ve got those, then integrity can be taken for granted.  Can’t it? 

Is wisdom a good virtue to focus on?  

Do you think school leadership in the UK lives up to this vision?  

What are the key issues that school leaders face?  

Are there barriers to school leaders behaving with wisdom and integrity? 

How might we support school leaders to exercise wisdom and integrity? 

Please email with your thoughts.

You can also read Carolyn’s series of blogs on ethical leadership in education, and the origins of the ASCL Ethical Leadership Commission.

ASCL Past President Peter Kent has also written Doing the right thing which looks at ethical leadership in education from an international perspective.
Posted: 02/03/2018 15:21:58