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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Educational leadership: key challenges and ethical tensions

Patrick Duignan
Emeritus Professor, ACU and National Director, ‘Leading to Inspire’ (www.leadingtoinspire.com.au )

 Patrick Duignan is the author of Educational Leadership: Key Challenges and Ethical Tensions (2007), which reports the findings of a three-year study on the ethical issues facing contemporary educational leaders. In the following article Professor Duignan summarises some of the conclusions of the study.

The key challenges of educational leadership involve tensions between seemingly opposite value positions: common good versus individual rights; care versus rules; loyalty versus honesty or justice; rhetoric versus reality; service versus economic rationalism; status quo versus development; and long-term versus short-term perspectives. Responding to them in an ‘either/or’ mode rarely works. It is better to approach them from an ‘and perspective.

These issues were explored in a study undertaken between 2002 and 2005 by the author and a team of researchers from the Australian Catholic University. The study examined data collected from educational leaders and leaders in other areas. Questionnaires on topics related to leadership and ethics were completed by approximately 400 educators in leadership roles. The findings from the questionnaires were then used to develop questions around key concepts for semi-structured interviews with 40 of these leaders. Study participants were also asked to complete a report of an incident where they had been required to make an ethical decision: 55 educational leaders did so, describing the incident itself, participant dynamics and the processes involved, and the outcome of the decision.

A variety of quantitative and qualitative techniques were used to assess the data. The themes identified were discussed by participants during a three-week online forum relating to leadership challenges. Some of the major ideas drawn from these results are summarised below.

Lessons learned: guidelines for ethical decision-making

1.                  Decisions will differ depending on the people involved and because of mitigating circumstances.

2.                  There are no easy answers when dealing with people-related tensions.

3.                  The easy option in many difficult dilemma situations may be to do nothing, but this rarely solves the problem and may even make it worse. 

4.                  It may seem easier to ignore or arrange for the transfer of ineffective staff than to try to dismiss them. However, the leader should ‘bite the bullet’ and resolve the challenge of problematic staff sooner rather than later.

5.                  It is usually better to approach a tension situation with a both/and rather than an either/or mindset.

6.                  Leaders should make a habit of being ethical because despite their rhetoric, their actions in times of stress may relate to entirely different principles.

Ethical tensions and decision making

Educational leaders should not analyse paradox and dilemma situations in terms of contradiction, polarity, and either/or frames, but in terms of relationship and both/and frames that encompass both complementarity and competition. They should identify and emphasise the qualities and conditions of relationships in each situation, instead of focusing on the contradictions and opposites. Leaders then have a better chance of influencing the direction and intensity of the positive side of a tension situation, thereby helping to resolve the problem. (English 1995)

Leaders who make choices in tension situations require more than management knowledge, skills and competencies. They require creative, intuitive frameworks based on an in-depth understanding of human nature and of the values, ethics and moral dimensions inherent in human interaction and choice.

Beyond competencies to leadership capabilities

In today’s often ambiguous and uncertain contexts, authentic educational leaders are capable of good judgement and possess a wisdom derived from deep critical reflection on life and work experiences. They are emotionally mature enough to engage in mutually rewarding and elevating relationships. They enhance the quality of their presence in their relationships in order to strengthen their influence as leaders. This ability to establish and nurture valuable and positive relationships possibly transcends any other capabilities they should possess.

Educational leaders require the following capabilities:

1.                  Critical reflection. The capacity to critically reflect on the challenges and experiences of life and work.

2.                  Intuitive connection. The ability to tap into the wisdom distilled from the warp and weft of life experience.

3.                  Ethical responsibility. The capacity to apply ethical standards to complex and perplexing situations.

4.                  Spiritual courage. Authentic leaders are human beings who have struggled deeply with the meaning of life and who possess spiritual scars on their characters from agonising over the ‘right’ thing to do when the ethical path may be fuzzy or grey.

5.                  Intellectual capability. Leadership demands a high level of mental acuity and discernment.

6.                  Professional commitment. Serving clients or customers with professional competence and commitment.

7.                  Managerial competence. The knowledge, understanding and skills to manage complex organisations.

8.                  Strategic readiness. Awareness of ‘the big picture’, and being visionary and strategic thinkers.

9.                  Emotional maturity. Having high emotional intelligence; engaging with others in mature, interdependent and mutually beneficial relationships.

10.                Cultural sensitivity. Capable of a sensitive approach to human and cultural differences; responding with consideration and empathy to those who may not share their preferences.

Concluding statements

Capable leaders are centrally concerned with ethics and morality and with deciding what is right and worthwhile. Their leadership is based on personal integrity and credibility within trusting relationships. They are authentic in that they are clear about their core values and do their best to live by them. They are capable of elevating the spirits of those around them, and contribute to their environment through the quality of their relationships.

A challenge for educational leaders is to build cultures of capability where all organisational members have a sense that they are valued and that they contribute to the leadership of the organisation. Capable leaders need to have adequate knowledge, understanding and skills to manage their responsibilities and resolve complex problems. However these ‘skills of doing’ can only be applied effectively if leaders also have the ‘skills of being’. The ultimate challenge for leaders is to develop their own and others’ capabilities so that their organisations can flourish in complex, uncertain, unpredictable and rapidly changing environments.



Duignan, P 2006 Educational Leadership: Key Challenges and Ethical Tensions, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne

English, T 1995 The double-headed arrow: Australian managers in the context of Asia, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of New England, Armidale


Subject Headings

Thought and thinking
School principals
School culture
School leadership
Professional development