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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools Depend Upon the Integrity of Their Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 15, 2015 4 min read
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Sometimes doing the right thing remains invisible and unnoticed. Sometimes that lack of recognition lasts career long. So, we take this moment to honor the overwhelming number of educational leaders who lead with integrity even under a myriad of circumstances and enticements that can make it the tougher choice. Our business is children, precious, innocent, and impressionable. Daily, we strive to keep them safe and engaged in rich learning experiences. No matter the program, method, or course of study, the adults, all of them, are held to the highest standard; we are publically expected to act with integrity and fairness. Without them, little else we do will make the difference our field needs. So, as schools work toward continuous improvement, creating richer 21st century learning environments, those environments call for risk taking and partnerships. In both efforts, trust lays the foundation.

What called us to write about this was reading that the Chicago city schools, led by a woman who had forgotten or lost these characteristics, has closed a sad chapter. Their former school chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, has a remarkable resume of leadership. From New York, to Cleveland to Chicago, she was acknowledged for her work in improving schools. She served on national boards and holds four honorary doctoral degrees. After nearly three years at the helm of the third largest school system the nation, she is done. She pled guilty to a kickback and bribery scheme that benefitted her and two corporations with whom she had connections. She will be spending seven-and-a-half years in prison. Although for Ms. Byrd-Bennett the case is closed, for the schools, the faculties and staffs, and the children of Chicago, there is damage to be repaired.

In federal court, Ms. Byrd-Bennett answered a series of standard questions before pleading. But afterward, she stepped in front of a bank of cameras in the courthouse lobby and offered a brief apology to the families and teachers in the school district. “I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them. They deserve much more than I gave to them,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said (WSJ).

Unfortunately, Ms. Byrd-Bennett, the damage isn’t repaired with your apology. The burden passes to those who will follow you and it will be the combined work of the faculty and staff, parents, children and city leaders to rebuild trust and integrity. It will be a long road.

How many of us have commented on our salaries as less than we would get in a corporate CEO role? But, does that lead to the greed and arrogance to commit acts against the law and take resources for personal gain and let the children suffer? No, it doesn’t. How is integrity lost? Is it little bit at a time or in one big step off a cliff? Is it desperation? Whatever the process or the motivation, the loss of integrity involves a personal choice. A leader’s ethical compass must be held so synonymously with self-identity that it can’t be compromised without alarms going off in our heads and hearts telling us we are lost. Byrd-Bennett has made choices that have ended her professional life and put her behind bars. She will now miss the growing up years of her grandchildren; purportedly they are ones she hoped would benefit from her actions. In the end, integrity is the better choice for so many reasons.

We turn to Bennis:

A major challenge that all leaders are now facing is an epidemic of institutional malfeasance, as we read nearly every day in the news. And if there is anything that undermines trust, it is the feeling that the people at the top lack integrity, are without a solid sense of ethics. The characteristics of empathy and trust are reflected not just in codes of ethics, but in organizational cultures that support ethical conduct (pp. 155-156).

On the same day the news of Ms. Byrd-Bennett arrived, so did a blog post from Scott Mabry. In it, he wrote that in leadership there are “things that we need to let go and there are things we need to hold fast”. He writes:

Hold fast to your purpose -the reason you set sail on this leadership journey

Hold fast to your heart -the intuition that guides you even when you can’t see clearly

Hold fast to your values -the internal compass that guides your words and actions

Hold fast to your faith -the belief that the storm can teach you and will not break you

Hold fast to your freedom -the power to choose your response to any circumstance

Hold fast to your friends -the people who encourage you and strengthen your grip

Hold fast to your dreams -the person you want to be and the life you want to create

We suggest leadership requires everything on the list and we honor those who lead with purpose, heart, values, faith, freedom, friends, and dreams. We are proud to call you colleagues. Let Chicago be a reminder for those who do prioritize integrity as primary. Your hard work and values make a difference. And, let’s hope for those in the Chicago school system, that they can find a new and different kind of leader, one who can lead them back to a place of trust, a good place for children once again.

Bennis, W. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.