While there is a general assumption that school leaders possess a basic set of ethics, the lenses of ethical leadership and how they are applied may vary in different school contexts. Principals and other school leaders are charged to make ethical decisions when faced with delicate circumstances that require them to choose from competing sets of ideals, beliefs, and values. Frequently these decisions require more than technical expertise; people are typically at the heart of each issue and often there are political or professional undertones that further complicate matters.

Ethical school leadership includes the recognition of different approaches to the decision-making process, an assessment of outcomes, and continual self-reflection. The complexities inherent in successfully leading schools are recognized in the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL). These standards highlight a fundamental shift from school administration to educational leadership and emphasize that every student must be the center of all education-related decisions. Further, the PSEL promote ethics and integrity as central tenets of effective school leadership as evidenced by their prominent positioning within the document.

While some education-related decisions are straightforward, others may be complex or thorny in that the “right” or ethical choice isn’t simple or apparent. Making sense of a thorny issue is a highly cognitive, and often perplexing, process; it is defined as the act of receiving, framing, and using information to determine specific actions and behaviors in a meaningful way. Generally, one engages in deliberate sense making when faced with complex and high-risk situations. In schools, principals and other leaders elicit information from multiple individual, social, and institutional contexts to create meaning of the situation at hand. Mental models form a framework for information gathering, evaluation, and solution planning.

A framework for ethical decision making is comprised of mental models about beliefs, values, and principles that are exercised to guide one’s choices. The Multiple Ethical Paradigms provide a framework to analyze and solve the problems that reveal themselves on school campuses. An ethic of justice is the foundation for rights and laws, as well as fairness and individual freedoms. An ethic of care emphasizes compassion and empathy; it is the ideal fulfillment of social relationships. An ethic of critique relates to the obstruction of fairness, by which constructs such as power and privilege are challenged. A complement to the ethics of justice, care, and critique is an ethic of the profession. This ethic is dynamic and is often applied when personal and professional ethics collide. The ethic of the profession considers the first three mental models but ultimately the decision is made in the best interest of students.

While educators are charged to make decisions in the best interest of students, a guidebook or manual does not exist for contextually specific problems that sit outside of established laws, rules, and policies. Further, decisions may be perceived as subjective in that each leader’s background, beliefs, identity, and group affiliations may influence the ways issues are interpreted and framed when developing mental representations. Subconscious motivational drives also create variance in how social stimuli are interpreted or ignored. Competing internal and external messages, often in conflict with each other, become critical challenges to ethical school leadership.