Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 1 — Effective Governance through Ethical Leadership

Last updated in January 2020

Effective Governance through Ethical Leadership
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  • The components of ethical leadership
  • The multiple facets of their role as leaders
  • Key concepts of school board governance


School boards have a long, effective and successful history. Taking up the office of school board trustee is a call, not only to carry on the tradition of local democracy, but to improve it. It is an opportunity to leave a legacy that contributes to one of the strongest education systems in the world.

The education system is the cornerstone of a democratic society. The reason school boards exist, the work they engage in, is to strengthen this cornerstone, to make sure that it is safeguarded and improved.

Setting the conditions that will provide a high quality education for every student to succeed in school and in life is the absolute first priority of a school. It is why trustees, without exception, serve on school boards. They undertake to work effectively as a member of a team to support the higher moral purpose of the school board. This is forged by the team together and is grounded in the mission of publicly funded education. This mission, variously expressed by individual school boards, is to prepare students with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to succeed in the future, whatever path they choose.

In the book, The Governance Core, by Campbell and Fullan, the authors describe a commitment to a shared moral imperative. “A shared moral imperative – a relentless commitment to the learning of all students, no exceptions – must drive the work of the board and its individual and collective action…. When trustees, superintendents, staff, faculty, and parents all operate with the same broad understanding of the moral imperative, the district can accomplish amazing learning – year after year.” The authors go on to state that it is a shared commitment to fundamental actions including;

  • all children will achieve, we will not allow an achievement gap
  • all children will have quality teachers
  • all children will be in a safe, healthy learning environment[1]

In addressing this moral purpose both the Catholic and French language school systems incorporate in their missions the specific constitutional rights of their constituencies. The English Catholic and French Catholic school systems strive to support a faith community where religious identity is integral to the board’s mission. In the French language school systems, both public and Catholic, enhancement and transmission of the French language and culture is integral to the board’s mission.

All four school systems incorporate in their mission a commitment to address the needs of Ontario’s highly diverse population and this is exemplified in the province’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.


Trustees as individuals must balance their role as a representative of the constituents who elected them with their role as a member of a governing board which is the school board’s decision-making body. The board of trustees itself maintains a balancing act between local community interests, the broader provincial interest, and the legislated environment within which the board operates.

As an individual board member it is important to be clear about one’s own values and aspirations. The place to start is self-reflection, which sometimes takes place more formally through board self-assessments. This involves asking the question: What role do I play in:

  • creating an environment that promotes innovation and risk?
  • building a cohesive and spirited team?
  • sharing power and information while still maintaining accountability?
  • improving my leadership abilities?[2]

The clear message in all of these questions is that leadership is not a solo performance. It is not a style. Indeed ethical leadership is very much a reflection of how we respect and nurture relationships for the common good. How do we move from “I” to “We”? How do we add value so that the successful work of the board of trustees as a whole far exceeds what can be accomplished by any single member of the board acting alone?

The list of questions above provides a framework of five leadership practices:[3]

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process (Status Quo)
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage Compassion and Sensitivity

There are some specific ways that these frameworks reveal themselves in the world of school boards.

Model the Way:

Each individual trustee brings with them their personal values, beliefs, strengths and limitations. How they express their views and the actions they take at the board table and in their daily interactions demonstrate consistency with their values and beliefs. Through ongoing conversations about ethics, values and the creation of value for stakeholders, each member of the board demonstrates who they are and “where they are coming from”. It then becomes possible to build a collective board where there is strong mutual understanding and shared values.

Inspire a Shared Vision:

Everyone who runs for office as a school board trustee does so to make a difference in the lives of young people and families that school boards aim to serve. The initial impetus can be as broad as a passion for improving public education or as specific, initially, as a conviction about how special education services should be delivered. The common factor is that they have a vision of something better. As a leader their challenge is to articulate the vision, describe how it will bring improvements and, through sincere dialogue, inspire their colleagues, school board staff and the community to share the vision.

Challenge the Process:

This leadership skill involves being open to innovation, to exploring different approaches, to turning an inquiring mind to alternative solutions and to questioning any response that says: “that’s the way it’s always been done.” In asking “What’s new? What’s next? What’s better?” trustees can forge new paths. This also creates risks and the possibilities of mistakes and disagreement, but it is done in a climate of trust and openness to learning. It is important to make room for mechanisms of dissent, to avoid a process that leaves people feeling thwarted and unable to express diverging views while ensuring individual’s and groups’ human rights are maintained.

Enable Others to Act:

Ethical leaders are not driven by personal ego. They step outside themselves and focus on success for the organization or community. They invest in fostering relationships, building teams and empowering others to take action. “Leaders work to make people feel strong, capable and committed. They enable others to act not by hoarding the power they have but by giving it away. Exemplary leaders strengthen everyone’s capacity to deliver on the promises they make. When people are trusted and have more discretion, more authority, and more information, they’re more likely to use their energies to produce extraordinary results.”[4]

Generative Thinking

Generative thinking helps people question assumptions, probe feasibility and identify obstacles and opportunities. It can be summarized as follows:[5]

  • A different view of the ways organizations work
    Organizations do not travel a straight line from vision to mission to goals to strategy to implementation.
  • A different definition of leadership
    Leaders enable organizations to confront and move forward on complex, value-laden problems that defy a right answer or perfect solution.
  • A different mindset
    Beyond the fiduciary and strategic roles, governance is considered effective leadership.
  • A different role
    The board becomes an asset that creates added value for stakeholders.
  • A different way of thinking
    Boards are intellectually playful and inventive as well as logical and linear.
  • A different notion of work
    The board addresses both higher order problems in addition to technical problems, and asks questions that are more catalytic than operational.
  • A different way to do business
    The board relies more on retreats, teamwork, robust discourse and collaborative self-assessment linked to organizational learning.
Encourage Compassion and Sensitivity

Working as a team, the board of trustees come to know and, to a great extent, share the values and beliefs of their colleagues. Even where they do not totally see eye to eye with their colleagues, they learn how best to work together. They come to know what developments will inspire and what developments will dishearten them. An ethical leader acknowledges the impact of events on their colleagues, demonstrates appreciation, celebrates victories small and large, and expresses empathy in tough times. This leads to the creation of collective capacity and the conditions for collaboration.

In Strong Districts and their Leadership (2017), Leithwood references the Personal Leadership Resources (PLRs) which describe the traits and qualities which are in evidence when the leadership practices are most effectively enacted. While all of the PLRs are essential to the work of the trustees, proactivity and systems thinking are among the most difficult for those in governance roles. Proactivity addresses the ability to stimulate, manage and weather changes on a large scale under complex circumstances. Systems-thinking attends to developing strategic understanding and foresight with respect to the dense, complex and inter-related connections between various elements of the organizations as part of wise stewardship toward a desired future.


The board of trustees is responsible for the success of the organization in terms of its purpose. It does this by providing oversight, direction setting and decision making through a governance process which includes defining roles, relationships, structures and processes.

Governance embraces the highest levels of effectiveness and, for each trustee, it involves a commitment to ethical leadership, to continuous learning and to long-term development.

In order to be effective in focusing the organization to be successful, the board of trustees plays four broad roles:

  1. Covering the Basics: The Board’s Fiduciary Role
  2. Big Picture Thinking: The Board’s Strategic Role
  3. Continuous Improvement: The Board’s Innovative Role
  4. Promoting Community Engagement: The Board’s Societal Role
1. Covering the Basics: The Board’s Fiduciary Role

The board of trustees has the responsibility to competently protect the interests, image and credibility of the school board, to ensure its financial viability, and to act in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations and policies governing the board or enacted by the government.

These are significant and complex responsibilities that require trustees to quickly acquire education sector expertise, skills to effectively handle the range of information that requires decisions, and exercise vigilance about the impact of developments and decisions on students, families and the broader community.

Undertaking these responsibilities goes far beyond fiduciary oversight. It requires engagement as a leader in determining the effectiveness of the undertaking. It involves asking questions such as: Does the budget reflect our priorities for students? Is it ethical? What can we learn from our audit? Are we treating staff fairly and respectfully?

The following is an overview of fiduciary expectations as articulated in Ontario’s Education Act. More detailed orientation to these responsibilities is provided in specific professional development modules and through individual trustee association guides to good governance.

Broad, overarching responsibilities of school boards are spelled out through the Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, 2009 which amended Ontario’s Education Act. The Education Act stipulates in s. 169 that every school board shall:

  • promote student achievement and well-being;
  • ensure effective stewardship of the board’s resources;
  • deliver effective and appropriate education programs to its pupils;
  • develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that,
    • promote the board’s goals and,
    • encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals;
  • monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of policies developed by the board in achieving the board’s goals and the efficiency of the implementation of those policies;
  • develop a multi-year plan aimed at achieving the boards’ goals;
  • annually review the multi-year plan with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education; and
  • monitor and evaluate the performance of the board’s director of education, or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education, in meeting,
    • his or her duties under this Act or any policy, guideline or regulation made under this Act, including duties under the multi-year plan), and
    • any other duties assigned by the board.

Many of these responsibilities will be delegated by the board of trustees to the director of education.

The board of trustees makes sure that services and programs that are vital to children, families and the broader community are in place. The exciting opportunity for the board of trustees is to move beyond oversight and compliance to visionary and proactive future thinking ensuring meaningful involvement of students, staff, parents and the broader community, and continuous building of public confidence in publicly funded education.

2. Big Picture Thinking: The Board’s Strategic Role

Under the Education Act, every school board must create a multi-year plan that spans a minimum of three years. The purpose of the strategic plan is to help boards set long-term strategic priorities and goals. The plan must be based on evidence to ensure that it has a clear purpose and that it is effective. It is important that boards use a collaborative process at every step in its development, so that everyone can take ownership of the multi-year strategic plan and feel responsible for its success.

The multi-year strategic plan is a visioning and policy document that sets the direction for the board. It is fundamental to ensuring good governance and to building public trust in boards of trustees not only to safeguard our schools, but also to ensure that they are caring, equitable, innovative, and flexible. While our schools make every effort to offer stability, they also strive to meet the changing needs and realities of our society. The operational and improvement plans created by the director of education and senior administration are based on the strategic plan and map out how it will be implemented.

A thoughtful and robust strategic plan reflects what has been learned from the past, not what has been done in the past. A strong multi-year plan is a driver for positive change in the board. When developing their plans, boards should be relentless in their efforts to address the needs of all students and changing communities. Boards must show leadership and drive, and that they collaborate closely with families, students, staff, and community members. For more information please see Multi-Year Strategic Planning – A Guide for School Board Trustees.

Higher level thinking and posing generative questions provide clarity about what the board of trustees wishes to achieve and how it plans to get there.

Some helpful generative questions might include:

  • what question, if answered, could make the most difference to the future of our board?
  • what’s important to you about our work and why do you care?
  • what opportunities and challenges exist in our work?
  • what do we know so far and what do we still need to learn about in order to improve?
  • what assumptions do we need to test or challenge?
  • what has real meaning for you as a member of our board? What surprises you? What challenges you?
  • what would it take to create and support change on this issue?
  • if our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose?
  • how can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each make?

Achieving what the board of trustees has determined to do and following through on a plan demands what Michael Fullan refers to as “resolute leadership”:

“Successful schools, districts, and larger systems have ‘resolute leadership’ that stays with the focus, especially during rough periods, and these leaders cause others around them to be resolute…….This is hard, persistent work but it is not overly complex. Resolute leadership is critical near the beginning when new ideas encounter serious difficulty, but it is also required to sustain and build on success.”[6]

The strategic role also involves the board of trustees in determining how it will address its accountability to students, staff, parents, the broader community, and the province. In answering the questions already outlined, the board will have dealt with only one side of the equation – describing the situation and the desired outcomes; the other side of that equation is knowing when the board has achieved the desired outcomes and that the board has a well-understood system for objectively measuring the milestones along the way to achievement of the outcomes. Michael Fullan suggests:

“Accountability is needed in order to reassure the public that the system is in good hands and progressing well; it is also needed to help implementers know how well they are doing while providing the feedback and help to do even better. Our concern here is with what actually works to move the whole system along – not what should work, but what does work. Intelligent accountability in essence involves building cumulative capacity and responsibility that is both internally held and externally forced.”[7]

The board of trustees will have to approve a framework of intelligent accountability that allows it to continuously monitor progress, analyze evidence and reliably report out on results to its stakeholders.

Exercising the strategic role involves the board in:

  • Internal and external consultations
  • Examining the internal and external environment to identify issues
  • Reviewing reports on results
  • Facilitation and dialogue
  • Developing strategic thinking
  • Considering strategic options
  • Engaging stakeholders through approaches such as open forums
  • Inquiry that respects the strengths of those being consulted
  • Considering assessment frameworks

The board of trustees are no longer merely overseers of school systems focussing on compliance with specific fiduciary duties; they are leaders of public education in their communities and in the province. They are charged with the responsibility to create the conditions within their school districts that enable students to meet high standards of achievement within a school environment that ensures their safety and promotes their well-being. Undertaking these responsibilities requires the board of trustees to understand issues deeply, align resources, and foster a culture within the system that supports all those charged with improving student achievement and promoting student well-being. It involves the board of trustees in articulating its education mission and garnering the public support and resources needed to achieve that mission.

3. Continuous Improvement: The Board’s Innovative Role

This role calls on the board of trustees to practise creativity, generative thinking and innovation so that the school board, as well as the whole school system, can ensure their relevance in a constantly changing environment. It involves a long-term perspective, with collective brainstorming and thoughtful dialogue to help understand the meaning of the current environment and emerging developments, and the board of trustees’ role as an effective leader in this context.

“Those who will be successful will be driven by the vision of creating more equal, prosperous societies. They will also have know-how – strategies with the potential of actually getting there. Because the goal is so critical and because there is a practical promise of success, strong leaders never, ever give up hope even though the frustrations of getting somewhere, especially at the beginning, can be enormously disheartening.”[8]

Continuous improvement goes beyond quality management; it is less about employing techniques and tools to analyze problems and find solutions and much more about establishing a culture that is consciously and continuously looking for better and more effective ways to evolve. An effective school board is not interested in being average; it wants to be the best. An effective board of trustees is willing to encourage experimentation and innovation, to pilot new ideas and be supportive through potential setbacks as they are tested. As leaders, the members of the board need to be open to ideas presented to them by staff, as well as critical about their own biases, processes and ideas and the degree to which they are immersed in routine. To what extent is the board agenda dominated by routine items? Does the agenda show that the board promotes the thinking and planning that produces innovation? What topics are under consideration that could be said to be focussed on increasing the relevance of what happens in schools to our rapidly changing world? How are key systemic barriers for students, families and staff identified and addressed through current governance processes?

Continuous improvement involves a way of thinking and acting that is never satisfied with the status quo. Boards of trustees may question existing practice, not to find fault or micromanage but to stimulate thinking that leads to adopting the most effective strategies. It is a truism that the strength of an organization lies in the people who work there. What opportunities does this present for school boards? For example, does the culture promote an understanding among staff about the purpose of their jobs and how essential each staff member is to the achievement of the board’s goals?

Clarity around the purpose of the board and every individual’s contribution to achieving that purpose builds collaborative relationships and fosters a climate where high achievement is valued and celebrated.

An orientation to continuous improvement creates dynamics in the work of school boards that promotes:

  • generative thinking
  • contextual and effective leadership
  • dialogue and openness
  • valuing diversity
  • asking “what if” questions
  • non-linear, divergent, out-of-the-box and creative thinking
  • researching and exploring new concepts
  • developing scenarios
  • non-routine and sincere conversations
4. Promoting Community Engagement: The Board’s Societal Role

Promoting community engagement requires a deep and sincere commitment to collaboration, cooperation and ethics –among trustees, in order to establish the board of trustees as a body focussed on its place in society, and in a larger context, to actively engage with the community, including other groups and organizations that share a common purpose. It encourages the recognition and appreciation of the interconnectivity and interdependence among organizations. This is particularly critical for French Language school boards where the capacity to empower linguistic and cultural identity is reinforced through establishing solid partnerships throughout the entire francophone community and, in the process, enriching sustainable development for all sectors of that community. For all boards, creating meaningful opportunities for community engagement is necessary to demonstrating ethical leadership. It includes opportunities for boards to listen to and amplify community voice, particularly voices of historically marginalized communities, as well as ensure there are processes for community voice to inform board decision making and governance structures.

A school board and its schools are not isolated entities. They are intricately linked to the lives of families, to the local community, to the parallel organizations that also form part of that community; they are connected as well to the provincial government structure through channels of mutual responsibility and accountability; and they are connected to the nation and world at large through the dual responsibilities of ensuring that children graduate from school with competencies to be successful in a global economy, and with the values and character that equip them to contribute to a civil society.

What collaborative relationships does a board of trustees need to build?

Families first and foremost
Parental involvement in a child’s education is directly linked to the child’s success in school. Parents (including guardians, caregivers and all with an interest in a child’s education) can significantly boost the efforts of the school when they understand what is happening and when they are clear about the board’s educational goals. Their influence as a supporter has ripple effects beyond the immediate school and permeates the community. Effective boards create intentional structures that create opportunities for families to be meaningfully involved and engaged in consultation and governance processes.

Other levels of local government and community agencies
The opportunities for interdependent action are fertile in the communities bounded by a school district. Engaging in partnerships and concerted action, for example with municipalities and community agencies, not only creates economies of scale but adds a great deal to community cohesion. This interaction also provides the board of trustees with opportunities to hear from their constituents.

A key outcome of collaboration is increased appreciation of the role of public education as a factor of community life and the successes that can be achieved through a concerted approach in pursuit of a common purpose. Additionally, an outcome might be an increased understanding of board members of systemic barriers various communities face with respect to education and beyond, how to identify those barriers and respond accordingly and effectively.

External partners – business leaders
Many trustees have a successful background in business and this is a useful skill they bring to the table. It is helpful as well to engage the broader business community. Whether or not business leaders have children in the school system they have a vested interest in the value added to a community where there is a well-functioning school whose students are attaining high levels of achievement. Beyond the more practical considerations of a community asset that attracts newcomers and ensures that its graduates will be productive contributors to the Canadian economy, most businesses have a corporate ‘giving-back to the community’ side to their business. If asked, they may provide business community input to the board’s strategic planning process or other relevant operations issues. With the setting up of independent Audit Committees as required by amendments to Ontario’s Education Act, school boards will be actively seeking members of the business community to serve on these bodies. This will entail relationship-building that asks school boards to be open-minded about examining their practices and actively listening to the advice they receive.

Political Leaders
The citizens of the community also elect Members of Provincial and Federal Parliaments. While education is a provincial jurisdiction, there are still issues impacting on schools that flow from the exercise of government at the federal level. For example, important matters such as First Nations education, immigration, copyright and HST are all governed federally. The provincial government, however, holds by far the greatest influence on school boards. This is evident through legislation, regulation, how schools are funded, mandatory policies to be implemented in schools and, to a great degree, how boards of trustees govern. Successful school boards build collaborative relationships with political leaders, both federal and provincial.

Many of these politicians ran for office for reasons that were largely unrelated to education. It is the job of the local school board trustees, as part of a well-articulated communications plan, to keep them well-informed about the issues affecting schools locally and the broader picture of education across the province. By doing this in their local ridings, trustees are raising awareness among the members of provincial parliament, and cabinet members, who will vote on legislative matters affecting school boards. There is an opportunity as well to demonstrate the case for local school board autonomy. The board of trustees can invite local politicians at all levels to discuss their strategic plans; they can keep them informed on specific challenges facing schools in the community and they can share the good news of student successes with them before they read about it in the local press. Effective school boards will give public recognition to political leaders who have played a role in supporting progressive public policy that ultimately benefits the board’s students.

In Summary

When the board of trustees actively exercises its role of promoting community engagement there are immediate benefits for students and schools in terms of public support, recognition, and additional social, emotional, and experiential resources that can raise student achievement to heights that may not be achievable by boards working in isolation.

Effective boards make deliberate, ongoing efforts to establish and maintain protocols and processes that actively seek the community’s voice and enlist its commitment to the public schools. Seeking – and hearing – the community’s voice and enlisting its support is an effective strategy for balancing competing interests and moving toward a productive consensus within the school system and in the wider community that is grounded in the interests of all students.

In a broader context, through community engagement and partnership development, the board of trustees is building allies and promoting public confidence in publicly funded education. Exercising this role strengthens a societal commitment to the value of a vibrant, successful education system, not just as a vehicle for educating children, but as a force for social cohesion, equity and prosperity that benefits society as a whole.


This module supports trustees in exploring the concepts of ethical leadership and how to apply these concepts in their work as members of their school board. The module also supports the complex, multi-layered roles that trustees and school boards have in serving students, families, communities and ensuring the successful future of public education in Ontario.


The model of governance roles is adapted from: Lise Lortie, The Fiduciary Role of an Elected Board, (Le Clé)

  1. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, Michael Fullan, 2019

  2. The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, 2012

  3. Ibid.

  4. The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, 2012 (The section on Ethical Leadership adapts the model of Kouzes and Posner to the school board)

  5. Governance as Leadership, Richard Chait, William Ryan, Barbara Taylor, 2004

  6. All Systems Go, Michael Fullan, 2010

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

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