Ethical leadership in practice

What kind of business leader does your school need you to be? Nickii Messer outlines a framework for ethical leadership

Author details

Nickii Messer was a school business leader for 16 years across three school phases, including senior leadership roles. Nickii is passionate about training and professional development for school business professionals, and since 2008 has been...

Rather hidden away in the ISBL Professional Standards, at the end of the ‘Values and ethics’ section, you will find a reference to the Seven Principles of Public Life (also known as the Nolan Principles), which ‘public sector professionals are expected to be familiar with, and to apply’.

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

I want to explore these principles in more detail and consider how they can be used as a framework to develop and deepen our ethical leadership practice.

1. Selflessness

Selfless leadership is ethically leading others in the achievement of assigned goals and the greater good for the benefit of all others before oneself. (The Selfless Leader: Dr JoAnne Lyon)

Being truly selfless means putting aside personal success to focus on the success of the organisation. The selfless leader must understand and buy into the organisation’s goals, and be able to objectively motivate others, ensuring everyone works equally to accomplish them. Selfless leaders not only create the best chances for the organisation, they empower individuals leading to greater overall organisational success and sustainability.

In reality, we all want something back from the work we do. Wages, recognition, job satisfaction. Being selfless means getting the balance right. Leading colleagues with equality and fairness, unifying our teams and individuals to achieve the organisational mission.

Integrity is about aligning your values to that of the school, and having the courage and determination to be the leader the school needs you to be

Ironically, one way for a school business leader (SBL) to become more selfless is to delegate. Many of us have a degree of control freak in our SBL DNA, but being selfless requires investing time and effort to empower other colleagues to take on tasks, responsibilities – even recognition. Remember, there is no i in TEAM!

2. Integrity

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them. (Brené Brown)

Each principle is arguably as important as the next, but I believe integrity underpins all others.

When working with school businsess leaders and professionals, I use Brené Brown’s words to describe how integrity centres on making the right choices. To do this, you to understand the context in which you work, the needs of the people you work for and with, and your own values as well as those of the organisation. Integrity is about aligning your values to that of the school, reflecting on the choices you make, and having the courage and determination to be the leader the school needs you to be.

There have been so many examples of SBL integrity throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Ensuring free school meals for families in need, or supporting colleagues unable to come in to work. For SBLs newly promoted to a leadership role, integrity may mean redefining personal and professional relationships with colleagues to consistently portray a fair, unbiased and credible approach.

3. Objectivity

I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not. (Michael Pollan)

Being an ethical leader demands objectivity, and the Nolan Committee describes objectivity as requiring a dispassionate approach, exercising judgement for the good of children and young people.

Depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding will help you place your own professional context more objectively

I find a certain discord between being ‘dispassionate’ and working for the good of children and young people. In my years working with SBPs, I have never yet met a SBP who has not been passionate about their school and the children. The point, though, is that passion should be borne from objectivity. ‘Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.’ (Abraham Maslow)

Consider the synergy with selflessness, since being objective means you put aside subjectivity, needs, prejudices and feelings, focusing instead on what Maslow calls the real, and the truth. To develop objectivity, wider reading, consulting and collaboration will help deepen the knowledge and understanding necessary to find ‘the real and the truth’.

To develop objectivity, I advocate reading new policies, regulatory frameworks (e.g. Ofsted), guidance, even legislation in their entirety, rather than simply relying on digests and summaries. Depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding will help you place your own professional context more objectively.

4. Accountability

Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organisation can have. (Pat Summitt)

There can’t be a school business professional (SBP) who doesn’t understand the need for accountability for decisions and actions. Being willing, and able, to submit themselves for scrutiny. Take financial audits as a case in point!

But being accountable should extend across all responsibilities, actions, and inactions. Being a truly accountable leader entails a level of professional reflection – even soul searching – to not just scrutinise what we have done, but those things we choose not to do.

As with integrity, accountability means making the right choices. Not just doing things you feel comfortable doing. Accountability is about making and responding to leadership decisions, whereas responsibility is more about the tasks. Increasingly, SBLs use mentoring and coaching to develop the necessary reflective practice to deepen their understanding of the impact of their leadership responses and behaviours – their accountability. 

5. Openness

I find that when you open the door toward openness and transparency, a lot of people will follow you through. (Kirsten Gillibrand)

When I think about openness, trust invariably springs to mind. Being open means stakeholders are better able to trust your words and actions.

A key interpersonal skill will be communication. Colleagues need to trust you will share ‘the real and the truth’ fairly and openly, and that you expect the same in return from them.

Developing school business leadership requires understanding the leader your school needs you to be

Being open requires applying discretion, confidentiality and good judgement to determine the potential impact of disclosing information. During my years as a SBL, I’ve seen some particularly heated ‘discussions’ between SLT colleague, but always in private.  Whatever our differences, we only ever projected a united front to colleagues.

6. Honesty

Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people. (Spencer Johnson)

To become a more honest leader is not simply about telling the truth, but recognising what is the truth, objectively and selflessly. Resist limiting your planning and actions to those things you want to do. Things you feel able to do without risk of failure. But instead, to objectively determine what the school needs and having the integrity to be truthful with ourselves first and foremost, making ‘Honesty … the cornerstone of ethical behaviour’ (Garth Jestley).

360 feedback can be a great way for SBLs to develop honesty. Objectively and positively comparing feedback from a range of colleagues who know you: colleagues you interact with; those you line manage; your superiors and/or line manager against your perception of your skills and behaviours, can support you in more honestly developing your leadership role and responsibilities.

7. Leadership

Leading with positive ethical values builds trust and brings out the best in people, which brings out the best in the organisation, which leads to great results. (Marketing with Ethics)

We are reminded that, in this context, leadership is a behaviour and a culture. Leadership includes demonstrating accountability to activity promote and robustly support all the other principles.

The ethical leader needs to be honest about their preferred style of leadership, and sufficiently selfless and objective in developing leadership styles to robustly lead and provide the very best results for our schools, the children and young people.

When I ask SBLs to describe their leadership style/s, they tend to describe the style they feel comfortable using. Developing school business leadership requires understanding the leader your school needs you to be, and the impact of your leadership behaviours, and the different styles needed for different situations. Your headteacher should be able to help you with this.

In conclusion, I return to integrity. To slightly paraphrase Zig Ziglar, ‘It is true that integrity won’t make you a [ethical] leader, but without integrity you will never be one’. 

Last Updated: 
01 Jun 2021