Politics And Ethical Decisions

The Journal of Values-Based Leadership Volume 8 Issue 2 Summer/Fall 2015 Article 6

July 2015

Reflections of Practicing School Principals on Ethical Leadership and Decision-Making: Confronting Social Injustice Mary E. Gardiner University of Idaho, Boise, [email protected]

Penny L. Tenuto University of Idaho, Boise, [email protected]

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Recommended Citation Gardiner, Mary E. and Tenuto, Penny L. (2015) “Reflections of Practicing School Principals on Ethical Leadership and Decision- Making: Confronting Social Injustice,” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership: Vol. 8 : Iss. 2 , Article 6. Available at: http://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol8/iss2/6




Reflections of

Practicing School

Principals on

Ethical Leadership and

Decision-Making: Confronting Social






Managers and leaders in business, education, medicine, athletics, policing, law, and other

professions are seeking to more effectively serve a diverse clientele and be responsive to

cultural, linguistic, and other behavioral differences. Using a framework of ethical social

justice leadership praxis, this case study reveals the processes and practices of current

school administrators in one suburban school district serving approximately 10,000

students in the US. The findings substantiate the theory of social justice leadership and


The study objective was to identify leadership

dilemmas of practicing school administrators and

their own codes of ethics to inform understandings of

ethical decision-making. Ethical decision-making

underpins leadership practice, theory, and

preparation. Existing models for ethical leadership

underplay the importance of social justice ethics in

decision-making. The research encompassed a

qualitative study based upon the constructivist

paradigm. Data were collected in the form of

interviews, document analyses, and professional

observations with practicing school administrators in

public schools. Dilemmas reported were analyzed

utilizing ethical leadership theories together with

social justice constructs. Results indicate ways

practicing school administrators, faculty preparing

administrators, and other business or organizational

leaders can utilize ethical decision-making and

leadership for organizational improvement.













produce a model of ethical leadership, while evoking a narrative directly from the school

principals themselves.

Justice, specifically justice principles and practices shaping education, is an ethic that

addresses human freedom and making choices equal to all individuals. The ethic of justice

in US education stems from the idea that individuals relinquish some of their own rights for

the public interest to serve others and benefit society. As an administrator, it is important to

think about this ethic when “judging human behavior and interactions” (Vogel, 2012).

Justice also calls for the ethic of social justice (Santamaria, 2013). Beyond simplistic views

of rights, justice, and a common legal framework, social justice in ethical leadership

decision-making means “identifying and undoing oppressive and unjust practices and

replacing them with more equitable, culturally appropriate ones” (p. 194). As Dantley and

Tillman (2010) state, the leadership needed to attain social justice is active leadership

which comprehensively addresses and resolves societal inequities. Furman (2012) defines

leadership praxis to mean connecting theory and practice with the leader’s own principles

and ethics through reflection on action. In other words, to lead ethically using a justice

perspective means integrating practice with theory and engaging in intentional reflection

(Duignan, 2012). Figure 1 demonstrates the integrated components of leadership praxis for

creating ethical learning environments in school communities and other organizations.


Figure 1: Ethical Leadership Praxis for Social Justice

The leader integrates personal values and leadership ethics with legally mandated

organizational and professional standards which also require a commitment to ethical

leadership and inclusiveness. A leadership dilemma occurs when the administrator faces an

incident or situation requiring his/her leadership and decision-making abilities and the

administrator is unsure of which competing frameworks should be applied to solve the

Ethical Leadership Praxis for

Social Justice

Leadershp Theory

Leadership Practice

Personal Leadership


Legally Mandated

Professional Ethical





problem or guide others to solve the problem. An ethical leadership and decision-making

approach includes social justice ethics as an essential part of educational justice. Emotion

may also be involved as the leader reflects on the present dilemma and how the dilemma

relates to his/her own personal code of ethics and values (Yamamoto, Gardiner, & Tenuto,

2014). Researchers (McCabe, 2013; Palestini, 2012; Theoharis, 2007) argue that school

leaders’ ethical decision-making and leadership abilities require courage and risk-taking in

the face of opposition. In the present study, leadership dilemmas and scenarios experienced

in practice were analyzed in light of constructs of ethical leadership theory and social justice.

In the US, principles of democracy and inclusiveness guide organizational leaders’ decision-

making and actions (Gardiner, Howard, Tenuto, & Muzaliwa, 2014; English et al., 2012;

Gross & Shapiro, 2013). The research framework incorporates Shapiro and Stefkovich’s

(2011) multi-dimensional approach, asking questions related to the ethics of justice,

critique, and care, additionally moving beyond these ethics to “formulate and examine their

own professional codes of ethics in light of individual personal codes of ethics, as well as

standards set forth by the profession, and then calls on them to place students at the center

of the ethical decision-making process” (p. 27). Ethical leadership is included in educational

leadership professional standards, and the research base supporting the standards (Young

& Mawhinney, 2012). The ethics and perspectives of those in the community are also taken

into account. Role-modeling by organizational leaders in ethical decision-making influences

others in the organization (Jordan et al., 2013; Simpson & Wagner, 2008). Our approach to

leadership and decision-making builds on this framework by conceptualizing the centrality of

social justice to emphasize valuing self, students, faculty, staff, and community members

who present cultural, linguistic, and other diversities. Therefore, justice — specifically social

justice — is an essential connector for ethical leadership. Ethical leadership and ethical

leadership development in schools, university programs, businesses, and other

organizations is a critical dimension of building socially just and equitable communities. We

maintain that leadership in all public and service professions requires attention to social

justice, democratic values, and promotion of, and respect and appreciation for, diversity.

Research Methods

The research design was comprised of a constructivist, interpretive, qualitative case study

(Lincoln & Guba, 2013; Marshall & Rossman, 2010; Yin, 2008). From this perspective, the

research sought to understand ordinary school leaders’ practices and understandings of

leadership dilemmas and professional ethics and decision-making. Data were collected in

the form of interviews, document analyses, and professional demeanor observations with

ten (10) practicing educational administrators with a minimum of three years administrative

experience currently overseeing one large suburban school district serving approximately

ten thousand students with a diverse student and family population. Selection was equitable

for gender, age, ethnicity, across available administrators who met the criteria delineated

above. Analysis was conducted utilizing traditional qualitative research methods of coding,

categorizing, and thematic analysis.

In this exploratory study, research queries included:

(1) What patterns or themes occur in the ethical dilemmas that arise for contemporary

educational administrators in their day-to-day work?




(2) How do ethical dimensions of leadership processes relate to leadership practices and

why is this connection important?

(3) What were educational leaders’ processes for employing decision-making to attain

ethical leadership and resolve conflict?

Participants were practicing school administrators in a large suburban school district with a

diverse student and family population. Following University of Idaho IRB approval, sixty to

ninety minute face-to-face (F2F) interviews with ten (10) school principals were held in their

respective offices. Participants were provided a copy of the interview guide prior to the

interview. Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed with consent. Data were

analyzed through the lens of professional educational ethics to assess ethical and culturally

proficient leadership. Trustworthiness was established by triangulating multiple sources of

information (Lincoln & Guba, 2013; Yin, 2008). Credibility was enhanced through

engagement with the participants, peer debriefing, and reflexive discussions with multiple

researchers. Reflexive engagement (Ravitch & Riggan, 2012) was a way for the researchers

to reflect on their own personal and theoretical stances in relation to the research and to

enhance outcome validity.

Each participant engaged in a semi-structured interview. Participants were also asked to

provide newsletters, faculty memos, public documents pertaining to ethical principles and

leadership. Directed observation was limited to professional interactions of the participant

with the researcher, including demeanor and any evident display of professional ethics. Data

revealed an area that school administrators felt needed to be addressed more at the school

level and in higher education classes was the school or district’s policies and procedures for

cultural proficiency. Essentially, analysis considered how administrators worked to ensure

success for all students regardless of ethnicity and cultural subgroups.

School Administrator Perspectives on Ethical Leadership & Decision- Making

The study found P-12 school administrators considered the ethical dimensions of leadership

for enhanced learning and teaching in educational environments to be more critical than

ever before. School leaders felt they work in new and emerging ethical situations of cultural

and linguistic differences, discrimination, bias, communication challenges, diverse

perspectives, legal, and accountability pressures. Findings suggest the ethical dimensions

of leadership dilemmas with a focus on the ethic of cultural proficiency arising from

administrative practice were sought by practicing administrators to inform leadership

preparation programs.

Specific issues identified by school administrators for professional educational ethics

preparation — which were supported by the large numbers of ethics concerns filed with the

State Department of Education [State Report, Ethics Conference 2013] — included:

 Educators’ inappropriate relations with students(including electronic and face-to-face


 Unsupervised special needs students; and

 Equality and adequacy of equal protection for students’ rights to a quality education,

academic integrity, and the need for improved processes for data-driven teacher

evaluations as opposed to subjective interpretations of performance.




Administrators’ ethical dilemmas and conflicts were clustered around the following themes:

1. Cultural differences and situations of conflict concerning race, ethnicity, and/or other


2. The need to process and adequately address the resulting behaviors connected with

conflicts stemming from these differences; and

3. Decisions made in immediate situations without the benefit of reflection or a model

designed to process ethical decision-making.

Each of these themes is exemplified below through the narrative of one of the

administrators selected: Middle School Principal Villafuente. Each of these three primary

themes on ethical leadership and decision-making were also present in all the administrator

narratives and represent a cross-case analysis.

Cultural Differences and Situations of Conflict Concerning Race, Ethnicity, or Other Cross-Cultural Differences

Principal Villafuente explained her leadership praxis and how this could be infused in

educational leadership preparation:

Following set guidelines and state, federal, and district policy is not enough for me as a

school principal. I also need to do what is right for the child. Some students need extra

tutoring time. Sometimes I need to meet special needs because of socio-economic

circumstances, providing support when it is needed such as transport for equity …

because of our Hispanic population and the culture of poverty in this district we alter our

values to meet their needs and having those principles [of social justice] is really

important for the job of school principal.

The administrator speculated while it is possible to learn cultural sensitivity as a new

principal, awareness and specific assignments during administrator training could be


The Need to Process Emotion Connected With Conflict Surrounding These Differences

Many of the dilemmas school principals face in today’s educational and societal context in

the US are difficult to address on an emotional level and require intentional self-talk and

interaction to process the situation. The school principal articulated her process for

decision-making as follows:

I don’t make decisions fast. I take time. If I didn’t have my yoga, I would be a mess. I

have to listen to what my heart, mind, and emotion are telling me and process my

emotion, not let it control me. Conflict is challenging. Not everyone has the same values

or the same ideas. I use what I learn to know what to do next. I’m not authoritarian so I

always meet with staff and take these concerns to them. We use each other’s ideas. We

work together to change things as needed based on what we have learned through

listening to ourselves and our emotion as a guide and then process that emotion in

productive ways rather than letting it become a stressor for us. If we don’t have the

answers for all the dilemmas we face, we have to keep an open mind and remember

that being judgmental doesn’t help improve students. Our main role as an administrator




is to understand and be aware of the backgrounds of all our students and incorporate

the cultural differences in our school so that all are being enriched through education.

From a social justice and ethical leadership perspective, the principal engaged her staff in a

form of shared leadership, while also recognizing the value of her own emotion as a signal

regarding differences in ethical principles and how the situation could be resolved.

The Role of Reflection for Processing Ethical Decision-Making

The school principal stressed the value of ethics embedded in the policies from the school

district and enshrined in US law. While she stated “all societies need that,” she continued to

elaborate that this simply provides a basic understanding of expectations for equality and

justice in schools. The administrator needs to move to the next level: reflecting on the

specific dilemma at hand in the school (e.g., a student’s pregnancy or incarceration) and

how to respond appropriately to provide them with the education they need to graduate:

Reflecting on the ethical issues for me means making sure I have provided a free and

appropriate education for all regardless of behavior, disability, socioeconomic needs —

taking ownership of student outcomes including the child who has been earning an “F”

in Math since the first grade, having transparency for our families in the SBAC [Smarter

Balanced Assessment Consortium] which must be confusing for them when English is

not spoken at home. Here in our district, the school boards represent the white male

population and the same for teachers, administrators, and counselors. We only have

one female secondary administrator who is a vice principal. We need more Hispanic

principals and in the district office. So to use this example, I do my part by reflecting on

how I can make up for this leadership vacuum and be inclusive and be accountable in

my leadership and decision-making. Do I bring in more parents into the school? Do I

pressure central office with their hiring practices?

The school administrator was able to employ self-reflection as a tool to enhance decision-

making. She realized she is not a solitary decision-maker, but rather engages others in the

quest for thoughtful school leadership which meshes with her own sense of herself as an

ethical leader.

Considerations for Ethical Leadership and Decision-Making

Educational leaders employ decision-making in their day-to-day processes and practices,

whether or not the decision-making is conducted with intentionality or follows professional

and personal codes of ethics. Specific ethics, such as professionalism, democracy, care,

inclusion, due process, justice, and social justice are embedded in the administrator’s

personal or professional codes of ethics and leadership.

The study revealed everyday practices and perspectives of leaders in a large, diverse

suburban school district with a diverse student and family population. By investigating

dilemmas of ethical processes and practices surrounding justice and equity in P-12 schools

to advance administrator practice and administrator preparation, we confirmed the

importance of several, newer dimensions of leadership preparation. The study confirmed

prior research and added some new insights, revealing the importance to school

administrators of: (1) ethical relationship, including trust and integrity (McCabe, 2013)

together with cultural proficiency and understanding. Culture in school learning (Hollins,

2008; 2011; 2012; 2012a) is necessary to build trust and integrity in school administrators’




processes and practices; (2) emotion in leadership is an underutilized vehicle for

understanding our own and others’ perspectives (Yamamoto, Gardiner, & Tenuto, 2014;

Culham, 2013); with (3) reflection and contemplative learning essential for growth as a

leader (Burnell & Schnackenberg, 2014). The centrality of school climate and culture in the

organization and the need for the leader’s awareness and sensitivity to this dimension of

leadership was confirmed. The study also showed the need for acceptance of a taboo topic

in organizations: the role of emotion in leadership. We refer the reader to a model for the

processing of emotion by school leaders reported in another empirical study of school

administrator practices (see Yamamoto, Gardiner, & Tenuto, 2014). Finally, reflection and

contemplative learning, which for some leaders may include spirituality, was a core

dimension of ethical leadership. School leaders and other organizational leaders have the

capacity to engage in critical thinking and reflection applying or discussing their own ethical

leadership and decision-making approaches. Discussion of one’s own ethical leadership and

decision-making in a collaborative organizational setting could enhance cultural sensitivity

and awareness of school processes and practices in student data analysis, school policy

and procedures, faculty development, and extra-curricular support.

Using an ethical leadership and decision-making approach supports administrators

engaging in reflection and seeking justice through understanding the conflict in values

proposed by competing arguments. Ethical leadership includes the value of culturally

proficient and social justice sensibilities for equity. Spicer (2009) notes public

administrators can engage more self-consciously in a type of practical reasoning that more

closely mirrors the adversarial character of legal arguments in the justice system to

understand both sides before seeking resolution. We found in our study that ethical

decision-making also requires critical reflection and a cultural component for social justice

to meet the needs of students and families and move beyond a simplistic justice framework.


This exploratory research supports current trends in leadership development toward

reflective practice and ethics engagement, particularly in administrator practice and

leadership preparation. The study offers a vision for educational leadership preparation

where instructional leaders, instructional coaches, and administrators work with university

faculty around ethics and issues of practice. Through the research and engagement with

school administrators in this study the goal was for ourselves to develop our competencies

as faculty functioning as a team of individuals who are in touch with ethical administrative

processes to seek optimum learning outcomes for students. Dissemination of the research

in this article may enable others to use the school leader experiences provided for

discussion and reflection.

Findings inform educational leadership curriculum and instruction by indicating leadership

knowledge, skills, and dispositions for ethical decision-making within positive school

cultures (Fiore & Joseph, 2013). The article advances leadership theory, preparation, and

practices in education shaped by principles and practices of social justice by reporting

practice-based findings on ethical leadership and decision-making. The everyday acts of

school principals cannot change education as a whole, but seemingly small and invisible

efforts of ordinary public organizational leaders can have an impact and improve their

organizations. Rights, justice, and law guide ethical decision-making, but equally important

are the contributions of cultural understandings, care, concern, and connectedness




embodied in the ethical leadership and decision-making presented in the paper, and at the

heart of every educational and administrative encounter.






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About the Authors Mary E. Gardiner, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational leadership at the University of Idaho,

in Boise. She has experience as an educator and/or administrator at K-12 and higher

educational levels in Australia and the United States, and has written several books

(Gardiner/Henry), and articles on ethical and authentic leadership. Her work can be found

in the International Journal of Leadership in Education (IJLE) and Educational Management

Administration and Leadership (EMAL), amongst other journals.

Email: [email protected]

Penny L. Tenuto, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University

of Idaho in Boise. She has held administrative and leadership positions in education and in

the private sector. Her interests include investigating the cultivation of democratic

professional practice in education (DPPE). Areas of specialization include leadership




influence to expand capacity for collaboration and growth by rethinking professional praxes

and relationships in education.

Email: [email protected]


  • The Journal of Values-Based Leadership
    • July 2015
  • Reflections of Practicing School Principals on Ethical Leadership and Decision-Making: Confronting Social Injustice

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