Competency 8

Consider laws, regulations, and ethical implications when making decisions.
Effective educational leaders must have the ability and knowledge to:

  • Identify resources and gain familiarity with the laws and regulations related to education, including civil and criminal liability for negligence, harassment, and personnel issues.
  • Identify resources that are needed to support legally and ethically defensible decisions.
  • Examine ethical standards.
  • Identify potential conflicts between legal and ethical considerations.
  • Analyze the ethical implications of enforcing law, regulations, and policies.

An effective educational leader must apply standards of ethical leadership and management in classrooms, schools, districts, and communities. "A simple ethical heuristic is 'to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do'. A person in a leadership position who does not have a well-founded set of values will never discover the right thing to do because the right thing to do changes with his/her context and is always self-serving. Leaders cannot operate from this sense of ethical relativism, whereby one path is as good as another path. The transforming leader is value-driven. He/She understands that ignoring ethical principles degrades each member in the organization" (Calabrese, 2002. p. 90).

Blanchard and Peale (1988) provide a series of "ethics check questions". "Is it legal? Is it balanced? How will it make me feel about myself?" (p. 20) They also developed the five principles of ethical power for organizations: purpose, pride, patience, persistence, and perspective (p. 128).

Sergiovanni (1992) posits that the primary authority for today's leadership rests in a combination of bureaucratic, psychological, and technical or rational sources. His argument is "that psychological leadership along with the leadership based on bureaucratic authority and technical/rational authority has its place but that its place should be to provide support for professional and moral authority. The latter two should be the primary bases for leadership practice" (p. 33).

Recently, much attention has been given to the subject of the moral character of educational institutions. "Ethical constructs are commonly perceived in legal contexts, but the meaning of administrative ethics is broader than this ... for many observers, leadership has become less a matter of aggressive action than a way of thinking and feeling about ourselves, about our jobs and about the nature of the educational process. More precisely, moral leadership requires attention to what schools are all about and what they do" (Kowalski, 1999, p. 88-89).

Fullan (2001) includes moral purpose as one of five key components of his framework for leadership. The other four are: understanding change, relationship building, knowledge creation and sharing, and coherence making. According to Fullan, "leadership … is not mobilizing others to solve problems we already know how to solve, but to help them confront problems that have never yet been successfully addressed" (p. 3). He suggests that "moral purpose is about both ends and means. In education, an important end is to make a difference in the lives of students. But the means of getting to that end are also crucial. If you don't treat others … well and fairly, you will be a leader without followers" (p. 13). Fullan goes so far as to say that "moral purpose and sustained performance of organizations are mutually dependent. Leaders in a culture of change realize this" (p. 28). While the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of all aspects of leadership and management are important to develop, organizations without an understanding of moral purpose are less likely to be sustainable or capable of improvement over time (Fullan 2001).

Successful educational leaders should reflect upon the moral character of their institutions and apply ethical leadership principles. Warren Bennis (1994) has written, "Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things" (p. 156) Successful leaders must perform both aspects of Bennis' description. "Leaders who win the highest levels of commitment actively employ their own deeply held beliefs in the course of their lives and their leadership roles They are persistent about bringing their beliefs to the organizations they lead" (Richards, 2004, p. 168). Effective educational leaders, therefore, must apply appropriate standards of ethical leadership and management including knowledge, dispositions and performances in classrooms, schools, and communities.

Last, a fundamental understanding of the legal principles involved in contemporary educational administration is crucial for the success of the educational leader. "The law of the school includes all of those areas of jurisprudence that bear on the operation of public elementary and secondary an higher educational institutions in the United States. School law as a field of study is a generic term covering a wide range of legal subject matter including the basic fields of contracts, property, torts, constitutional law, and other areas of law that directly affect the educational and administrative processes of the educational system" (Alexander and Alexander, 1998, p. 1).

Because of the complexity of law and its application upon current school administration, educational leaders must be aware of major areas of school law, including student and teacher rights, tort liability, church and state, school desegregation, and students with disabilities. Knowledge of these and other areas is essential for effective leadership in the educational environment.


Alexander, K., & Alexander, M. D. (1998). American public school law (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Blanchard, K., & Peale, N. V. (1988). The power of ethical management. New York: Fawcett Crest.

Calabrese, R. L. (2002). The leadership assignment: Creating change. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kowalski, T. J. (1999). The school superintendent: Theory, practice and cases. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Richards, D. (2004). The art of winning commitment. New York: American Management Association.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1992). Moral leadership: Getting to the heart of school improvement. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

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Steve O'Brien
Adjunct Faculty
Leadership in Educational Administration
School of Education
Steve O'Brien
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