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ethics and strong leadership

On Point: Exploring the Link Between Ethics and Strong Leadership

Julie Thannum
Julie Thannum, APR

In the face of increased competition, it’s critical for schools and districts to build and maintain a positive, consistent brand through continual student and parent engagement.

 At the front lines of this very important effort are school communications professionals, who are tasked with establishing a clear, consistent voice for their schools.

 Few people know more about the challenges facing the nation’s school communications leaders than Julie Thannum. As assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Carroll ISD in Texas as well as a past president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), Thannum is a leading voice on school communications, PR, and community engagement.

 That’s why we’re thrilled to introduce our latest column, On Point with Julie Thannum.

 Each month, Julie will highlight how consistent, clear communications strategies can help school leaders address the major problems facing their districts.

 This week: A look at how school leaders can—and should—establish strong ethics protocols in their districts.    

 There are some who believe we are suffering from a national leadership crisis. Every day the news seems to reveal yet another abuse of power from top leaders in almost every sector of society—from politics to entertainment to business.

That certainly may be true. But if we’re being completely honest, day-to-day ethical decision-making is harder than most people admit. It’s been a problem for leaders throughout history.

Being ethical isn’t just about telling the truth; it’s also about transparency and earning public trust over time. It’s about being so consistent in your behavior that your response to an ethical dilemma is no dilemma at all; the people you are accountable to and who you serve, should already have an idea about how you will respond.

As school leaders, credibility in our business isn’t automatic. It is earned, and when it is lost, it’s nearly impossible to regain.

According to the Institute for Global Ethics, studies have consistently found that ethical decision-making fosters improved employee morale, boosts brand reputation, encourages loyalty in customers and employees, and improves your company’s bottom line.

This is true in K-12 education, too.

Common ethical principles for educators include: telling the truth; citing your sources; getting permission to use the work of others; being loyal to your organization while still protecting the public’s interest; maintaining confidentiality; not misrepresenting or overstating your qualifications; being transparent and forthcoming; treating others fairly; not using your position for personal gain and disclosing conflicts of interest.

An ethical school leader will follow state and national laws, but will also know and adhere to district policies. As a leader, you have the opportunity to function as the conscience of your district.

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As school leaders, there are standards you can set to ensure you are consistently ethical when acting in the best interests of students.  In the wake of recent lapses in professional ethics in other sectors, school leaders should take a look back at their district’s ethics policies. Here are four key areas for school leaders to consider when reviewing their district’s ethics protocols:


Set clear expectations. Establish and review your code of ethics and provide training for your employees. You’ve heard of tabletop crisis scenarios for training purposes? Give your staff ethical scenarios and see how they problem-solve and respond. It might surprise you that great leaders often respond to ethical dilemmas differently. Talk about expectations for truth and transparency. Set a good example as a leader of character, and then recognize and commend others.


Identify your school district’s core values and non-negotiables in advance. If your district doesn’t have established core values, then develop them for your department, campus, or simply for yourself.  Be a centrist; don’t align yourself with extreme opinions or special interest groups. Be collaborative and consistent in your ethical responses and listen to the concerns of others, but do not waiver from your foundational core values. Above all else, be confidential, especially when it comes to student or employee information. Once you’ve established your core values, communicate them through consistent messaging.


Ethical leaders listen more than they speak. Research key audiences and target your messages to ensure mutual understanding. Don’t forget to plan meaningful engagement with your students, and ensure conversations are two-way. Implement ongoing, strategic communication with consistent messaging, and evaluate regularly for effectiveness and understanding to ensure credibility.


Being likeable and believable is half the battle in leadership. But beyond having charisma, be known as a person of high standards with a history of doing the right thing. Find someone you trust to give wise counsel or advice, and don’t be afraid to apologize to others or publicly if you have done something to lose trust. Above all else, treat people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Remember, integrity is who you are when no one is watching. As school leaders, we rarely have the luxury of no one watching. In fact, we constantly have the eyes of the nation’s children upon us. It is an enormous responsibility and a tremendous privilege. Lead wisely and ethically.

How do you review and evaluate your school or district’s ethics policies? How do you hold you and your staff accountable for ethical lapses? Tell us in the comments.