What is ethics? The word derives from the Greek word ethos, meaning ‘custom’, ‘usage’ or ‘character’. Standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as ‘the science of the ideal human character’ or ‘the science of moral principle, integrity, duty’. And moral, derived from the Latin mos, moris ‘manner’, ‘custom’, ‘habit’, ‘way of life’, ‘conduct’ typically describes whatever is good or right or proper.

What is good? We speak of virtue, value, worth, principle, integrity, nobility, praiseworthiness or righteousness. The problem is that every attempt to pin down these words is cyclical.

Ethics, put simply is the inner impulses, judgments and duties of people like you and me. Leaders need ethics but it’s not simple. Consider this – individuals who merely obey the law may or may not be ethical.

Leaders have to make tough choices between justice and mercy, short versus long-term, individual vs community and truth vs loyalty. Leaders need a well-tuned conscience and a lively perception of the difference between right and wrong. This requires ongoing transformation and continual learning to understand issues and consider deeply the effects of decisions. One thing I’ve learned in my years as a school leader is that different values may still be compatible. We can explore them with an eye to finding ways to satisfy both at the same time. Over and over in my dealings with teachers, parents and my board I learned (sometimes the hard way) that most disagreements, although seemingly polarized, are framed by deeper shared values. It takes time to discover these but we must take the time! Dialogue is key. We can work from those shared values – from the common ground – toward jointly agreeable resolutions.

In the ethics texts I used in my ethics course for my Doctorate, I learned that there are varied ways to go about decision making – ends based or utilitarian methods (consider the greatest good for the greatest number); rule-based or duty methods and care based methods. One particular author stands out when it comes to the study of ethics: Dr. Rush Kidder, ethicist and founder of the Institute for Global ethics (now deceased).

On YouTube you can find a keynote (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KdY-XQpSs0) he did where he outlines how good people make tough choices. In a nutshell, Kidder taught that thorny moral decisions rarely involve choosing right over wrong; rather, he said, they often demand selecting among various “right” solutions. Making ethical judgments includes balancing considerations like truth versus loyalty and short-term versus long-term effects. Kidder urged that people to think through such matters regularly to achieve “ethical fitness.” I encourage you to listen to his keynote speech.

One of things Kidder said that will always stay with me is mercy is usually a higher value than justice. This resonates with me because my favourite scripture is Micah 6:9 ‘Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk humbly with God’. And it is further reinforced by Pope Francis, who in a homily back in March 17 2013 said the following: “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.

To embrace the ongoing transformation and continual learning of becoming a leader of principle, I suggest you read biographies or autobiographies of people you admire ethically. Pay attention to the ways in which they learned and changed. How did they become the people they are? What made moral learning and change possible for them? You might also engage in conversation or even interview some people you know asking the same questions. What have been major ethical changes in their lives? Why did those changes happen? Were they hard? Why? How do these people feel about the changes now that they look back at them from some distance? What advice do they have for you?