Head of School Laura Danforth on Ethical Leadership

Education has a powerful centrifugal force. Any subject or tenet that is not placed in the very core of the curriculum will inevitably spin off to the side. That is why schools must work hard to make ethics and ethical leadership central to the education they offer students, fastening it to their educational programs as often and with as many tethers as they can. At our school, we have chosen to take an active, deliberate approach by infusing our curriculum with the study and practice of ethical leadership.

In our current culture, programs designed to develop leadership begin as early as elementary school and continue well into adulthood. Despite the presence of a robust leadership development industry, unethical leadership examples abound in corporations, religious organizations, sports teams, academia, politics and society at large. What are we missing? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review details research that explores competencies that leaders from around the world believe are the most important for leadership. Of the characteristics examined, survey participants selected “high ethical and moral standards” as ranking above all other traits in a leader. How do we get there? How do we intertwine leadership and ethical behavior? Might they in fact be flip sides of the same coin? At our school, we assert that this is so.

Most independent schools have mission statements that reflect their desire to graduate students who exhibit ethical thought and action and good character, and who aspire to have a positive world impact. Driven by those missions and in part by the Schools of the Future initiative spearheaded by the National Association of Independent Schools — with its inclusion of ethical excellence and leadership — independent schools have continued to put a priority on character education and leadership development.

Infusing Ethics into the Curriculum

There are many approaches to ethics and character education, but many researchers conclude that ethical growth depends not only on knowing with the mind, but also on understanding with the heart. One of the challenges to independent schools — most of which are charged with offering students a rigorous academic curriculum — is to find ways of meeting that charge while addressing character development. Most schools opt for some form of adjunctive or co-curriculum — perhaps one step to the side of the core curriculum — often with a required course or two in ethics or religion.

The more difficult and, we posit, more effective option is to infuse the curriculum with ethics and ethical leadership. Much of the research in recent decades on effective character education has centered on intrinsic motivation: how can we best help students make good choices in learning and living? Using our understanding of research regarding self-determination theory, emotional intelligence and developmental neuroscience, we have developed a unique and holistic approach to developing ethical leaders. For us, ethical leadership is character education applied to context: the context of our lives as they exist now, and the context of the lives we aspire to live.

The mission of our Leadership Project states:

Leaders are individuals, both titled and untitled, who move their communities forward in a positive direction. The Leadership Project at The Masters School cultivates an environment in which students, faculty and staff engage in activities that develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the impacts they have on their communities. Teaching integral components of leadership and mentoring students in meaningful leadership experiences, the project empowers students to choose positive action and pursue lives of significance.

Essential to the Leadership Project is the conviction that our emphasis must be on all aspects of life at school: classes, athletics, arts, community service, residential living and all social interaction. We have focused on an important stepping stone that helps us traverse the gap between ethical theory and ethical action: developing intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

You can lead a horse to water, but how do you get the horse to choose to drink? How do you develop intrinsic motivation? The Harkness pedagogy utilized in our classrooms is helpful; the collaborative and student-authored learning that takes place around a Harkness table is a natural fit for the work we are trying to do.

Harkness learning in all disciplines involves discourse among students and teachers around oval tables and requires self- and social-awareness, critical and creative thinking, and openness to a myriad of interpretations and understandings. With small adjustments in emphasis, students in this environment learn to focus on character elements in any discipline. The study of literature then includes reflection on challenges to a protagonist’s integrity, or the ways in which a character overcomes obstacles. A language teacher introduces new students to words like “integrity” and “courage” in addition to words like “school” and “store.” A science teacher explores the ethical dilemmas inherent in energy development, climate change or genetic engineering. A math class explores the ways in which data analysis can be manipulated to present desired results, and the ethical implications of this common practice. Students of history explore the character strengths and weaknesses of world leaders in any era.

Infusing an ethical framework into the curriculum increases students’ understanding of the relevance of curricular topics; instruction de-emphasizes memorization and shallow understanding and instead emphasizes self-referential learning — reflecting on content in a way that connects students personally to the material at hand. This self-referential effect and the reflection required to engage students in a deeper connection with what they are studying increases intrinsic motivation. We are working hard to help faculty experience that infusing their teaching with ethical learning strengthens rather than diminishes their curriculum.

Getting Teacher Buy-in

Currently there are two ways in which we work with our teachers. The first involves a two-day summer institute offering an overview of our work, shared discussion of best practices and presentation of projects that faculty members develop for the following year. These projects focus on one aspect of their work (e.g., advising, teaching, coaching, residential life or community service) and a specific plan for incorporating ethical leadership elements into that work. In addition to implementing a consultancy protocol for their colleagues, the Leadership teachers offer a monthly lunchtime seminar, perhaps involving a discussion of a relevant article distributed ahead of time or a presentation about techniques a teacher is using. Each session of these seminars deepens our shared understanding and furthers the evolution of our pedagogical practices.

Curricular Elements of the Project

Complementing the work we do with teachers, the Leadership Project allows Upper School students to explore ethical leadership in a variety of ways. All students in grade 9 engage in an Introduction to Leadership module in which we explore facets of everyday leadership, challenging traditional and simplistic notions of role-based, authoritarian models of leadership. Students explore the values and characteristics they recognize in leaders in their community and identify areas for their own personal growth. Using a leadership characteristic survey, students explore their own leadership qualities and become increasingly aware of when those qualities are called forth and when they are moribund. By design a collaborative community, we help students understand challenges and opportunities that group work offers them as individuals.

Processing ethical dilemmas with their peers as well as on their own, students are challenged to think about the choices they make each day and about how those choices either strengthen their value system or erode it. Finally, in an exercise we call “Fast-Forward to 40,” they are encouraged to look forward to age 40, and imagine and reflect in writing what they think their roles and responsibilities will be at that point in their lives. This thought- and feeling-provoking exercise is intended to help them begin to grasp and envision the growth process they will need to undergo in order to be the people they hope to become.

Leadership Lunches

In grade 10, we shift from a curricular approach to leadership and invite students to participate in monthly “leadership lunches.” In this year, the goal is to help students focus on practical applications of leadership in a team setting. We introduce team challenges and have students work through those challenges. For example, as students take on the challenge of an exercise like The Helium Stick, they naturally default to the roles and behaviors they exhibit when facing a difficult task with a group. In a debrief, we help students reflect on these behaviors and their effect not only on the group’s success with the task, but also on the group’s dynamic. Often we will have one team of students observe the work of another team as they go through an exercise. This enriches the experience of both sets of students from within their different vantage points. The students who participate in such exercises describe a resulting deeper understanding of group dynamics, as well as their own strengths and weaknesses and emotional intelligence — knowledge that is essential for ethical decision-making.

In grades 11 and 12, we ramp things up again. Students either enroll in a class in ethical leadership or participate in our Leadership Lab.

The Ethical Leadership course takes a very intentional approach to self-exploration. Students are asked to consider their own personal value profiles, to reflect on the origins and influences that shaped those values, and to consider how their values are reinforced or eroded. Which people and communities help them stay true to their ethical values, and which people and communities pull them away from the center?

Students learn about the process of setting goals and tying them to principles and values. We introduce the benefits of regularly reflecting on one’s goals. The class explores shared readings and films, sometimes discussing and sometimes writing reflections on a prompt about a specific ethical aspect of the material. Students develop ethical dilemmas for class discussion that are based on real-life challenges that are relevant to them. Topics cover a broad range — from academic integrity to issues with friends, such as eating disorders, drug use, sexual harassment, racial insensitivity or sexting. In each of these contexts, students develop questions to deepen the discussion of the choices one faces in life.

In addition to these hypothetical dilemmas, students conduct an interview with an established community leader, asking about guiding principles and values, the challenges they’ve faced, mistakes they’ve made, and what they've learned from these mistakes. Finally, students develop their own personal leadership projects, with the task of identifying a way in which they could move one of their communities in a positive direction and linking this to their own ethical principles. Action steps follow as students take on a specific project, setting goals and writing about their process and progress.

The Leadership Lab

For students who cannot fit the Ethical Leadership class into their schedule, we offer individual and small group work in our Leadership Lab. In this space, we work with students to try to accomplish some of the same work we do with our class, but in a less structured and timetable-bound manner. Students bring us challenges for discussion, and, either working with a group or individually, we coach and mentor them on possible approaches. This is another situation in which we have used a consultancy protocol approach, helping students learn this specific technique for exploring solutions to the problems they face. Two co-directors of our Ethical Leadership program are currently managing the flow of this work; with time we hope that more teachers will become “regulars” in the Leadership Lab and that this space and its exploratory function will be available to students throughout the school day and in after-school hours as well.

While a great deal of work has already been done to build our leadership program, there is more to do. We have run some ethics-based programs for parents, and hope to expand this effort. We are also working with Middle School colleagues and students to enhance ethical leadership efforts in their curriculum. Finally, much research has been done on the ways in which approaches to discipline can encourage or hinder adolescent growth and development. As a school, we are working on modifying our disciplinary approach in order to shift disciplinary situations toward growth opportunities.

Our School’s mission encourages all community members “to learn, to strive, to dare, to do ... to be a power for good in the world.” Our Leadership Project, tethered as it is to the Harkness method and a collaborative, real-life focus, provides an all-encompassing approach to realizing this mission in our community and in the world our students will help to shape.


Sunnie Giles: "The Most Important Leadership Competencies according to Leaders Around the World," Harvard Business Review, March 2016. 

A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, National Association of Independent Schools, 2010.

David Streight: Breaking into the Heart of Character: Self-Determined Moral Action and Academic Motivation, Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education Publications, 2013.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci: "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions," Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 25, 54-67; 2000.

Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1995.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci: "Toward a Social Psychology of Assimilation: Self-Determination Theory in Cognitive Development and Education;" Chapter 9, Self-Regulation and Autonomy: Social and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct, 2015.

Laura Danforth is Head of School at The Masters School, a day and boarding school for students in grades 5 through 12 in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

49 Clinton Avenue
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
(914) 479-6400

Do it with thy might

powered by finalsite