Integrity and ethics permeate almost every waking hour of a school leader’s life, and here are just a few examples…
One of the closest disciplines that represents the issues faced by business managers and bursars is the role of professional accountant. For accountants, ethics is central to the public trust obligations expected of them, and the Accounting Professional & Ethical Standards Board (APESB) is a national body that sets out the code of ethics and professional standards with which accounting professionals who are members of professional bodies must comply (APES110 Code of ethics for professional accountants). I am not implying that the accounting profession is the only profession that faces matters of integrity or public trust, but that deliberate and specific practices and standards are required to ensure that integrity and ethical conduct is maintained in many professions.
In schools, there are things to be done (or not done) because the law prescribes them. These are further extended by the ‘laws’ within our schools – the policies that are set to specify the school’s position and treatment of a matter or subject. Let’s call all of this ‘compliance’. But integrity should go much deeper than just complying with laws or policy – it should be more than following rules, but what is it?
The foundation of ethical behavior (integrity) is moral awareness. To maintain a standard, that standard must be known, accepted and acted upon. But how do we develop and maintain integrity and the required standards? There are at least three theories (and probably more) that describe how ethical behavior and standards are attained.
Duty-based ethics asserts that it is the intention behind the act itself that is more important than the results of the act. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) posited that persons of goodwill are motivated by a sense of duty to do the right thing. This theory would say that it is always wrong to tell a lie and there is a duty to tell the truth.
Consequence-based ethics proposes that it is not duty that is fundamental to ethics, but the consequences or impact of our decision-making. Those decisions and actions that cause no or minimal impact are inconsequential and therefore should not be a concern to an ethical person. This theory would say that a lie is not bad if the outcomes that flow from it are not bad. This is like choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils’ – and sometimes we have to do this.
Virtue ethics states that it is not out of duty or the consequences of decisions, but out of the moral values inherent in a person, such as integrity, good character and an innate desire to do good based on virtues such as courage, courtesy, compassion, generosity, fairness, fidelity, friendliness, honesty, integrity, prudence and self-control. This theory assumes that virtues are not natural or inborn but are developed through practice and experience. Through repetition and learning, these virtues become a habit or a natural reaction. Virtue ethics would say “I don’t tell lies.”
While virtue ethics appears to have the higher ground of these theories, all three theories hold something of value to help us navigate these sometimes-tricky waters.
Virtue ethics reminds me of verse in Philippians 4:8:
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
In fact, the scriptures give us much guidance about ethics and integrity:
“And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” Psalm 78:72 [Note here how the verse links integrity and skill.]
“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” Proverbs 11:3
“May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you.” Psalm 25:21
“Because of my integrity, you uphold me and set me in your presence forever.” Psalm 41:12
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” Proverbs 10:9
“In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.” Titus 2:7-9
If we distill the main points from these verses, we have some excellent encouragement for living and working with integrity. The continual practice and upholding of integrity can become a guiding force in one’s life. It will become a habit and a natural reaction to circumstances and will be buried in our hearts. It should be something that we hold dearly to.
The practice of integrity also draws upon a desire for excellence using skill, judgement, objectivity and effective decision-making. We are to do everything with a willing heart and a desire for excellence. Integrity is coupled with good speech (careful, considered, positive, honest, encouraging) and being serious and believable with what one says. The practice and intentional outworking with integrity can draw us closer to God, and as Christians, we will draw closer to Him for guidance and strength when dealing with these circumstances.
There is a burden of worry or guilt in not being upright. Honesty and integrity bring about freedom. “The truth shall set you free.”
We are asked to do good in everything – not just part of our lives. Living with integrity in everything we do is more likely to bring about a natural reaction on our part, rather than remembering to turn it on or off according to circumstances. If we show integrity even with those that are closest to us and know us best, how much more will we do this for others that we are less acquainted? Acting without integrity – or with sloppy or selective integrity – can bring us down and destroy us.
In becoming people of integrity and it being part of who we are, we begin to model it for others – it can’t help but be on display and giving those around us the confidence that we are always seeking the best in everything we do. If our integrity is inherent in everything we do, others will notice it, whether it is subtle in our language and actions, or whether we proclaim it explicitly as a guiding value in our decisions.
Acting with integrity avoids or is a defense against accusations – it is a protection. If others know we strive for integrity, we are much less likely to face accusations. Others may support us and speak favourably on our behalf. Acting with integrity is powerful as it deals with both the reality and the perception.
Integrity also ensures that the gospel remains ‘attractive’ to students, parents, governors, regulators, and authorities. This reminds us that leaders in Christian schools should be leaders in excellence and integrity.
If we have chosen a path of integrity for ourselves, we have to be careful that we do not begin to lecture or judge others based on our own high standards. But rather, our words and deeds that are inherent in our responses and actions will be an inspiration for others to find their own path of integrity, and hopefully, drawing closer to the author of our integrity.
Lord – help us to develop integrity in all parts of our lives. Let it be our natural response to all situations because we know it is pleasing to You and is part of us becoming more like Christ. Continually develop and remind us through life’s circumstances to practice and learn integrity so that it is our preferred and natural response. Give us your courage and wisdom to act with integrity whether anyone is watching or not. May you be honoured and glorifed through this. Amen!