Lately, it feels as if the world is reeling from the advent of one crisis to another. The personal traumas Philadelphians are dealing with are varied, yet equally tragic: the loss of a loved one, declining health, family dysfunction, unemployment, street violence and tragic accidents. These jarring life changes makes this a time of unprecedented struggle and upheaval.
For me, this past week was particularly difficult, as my heart was broken when I learned that a very close friend lost her son, who is the latest victim of the hit and run phenomenon plaguing the city of Philadelphia. Our friendship allowed us both the opportunity to watch and get to know who each other’s children are becoming. Therefore, this loss is particularly devastating, and I’ve felt so impotent with helping to assuage my friend’s anger and brokenness.
To me, living a life of integrity and leading that way in my profession means spending every waking moment committed to the idea of facing life’s joys and hardships in accordance with one’s values, principles, and moral virtue.
Losing a loved one is one of the most distressing and emotional experiences in anyone’s life, leaving survivors with the pain and sorrow of unspeakable grief. In spite of the sadness I feel for my friend’s tragedy and pain, I recognize that I still have to persevere, continue to lead my school, and serve the children of Philadelphia to the best of my ability.
This has caused me to wonder to myself: As a principal of Paul Robeson High School, how do I continue to lead my school during one of the most challenging social conditions in Philadelphia’s history to date?
My solution: Preserve your integrity, at all costs.
For the past 18 months, Philadelphia has been in the grips of several pandemics that have dramatically changed the face of our society and how Philadelphians conduct daily life: Covid-19; gun violence; mental health and personal trauma; political and social turmoil; poverty.
University of Houston Professor Brene Brown states, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” To me, living a life of integrity and leading that way in my profession means spending every waking moment committed to the idea of facing life’s joys and hardships in accordance with one’s values, principles, and moral virtue.
It is an outlook on doing what is right, advocating for what is just, and having the moral courage to fight for your ethics when you don’t have to, even in the face of adversity. Integrity is not a value that is simply assumed just because one wants it to be. It is a value that is developed over time by knowing in our hearts and mind what is the right thing to do and simply engaging in the practice of doing what’s right every day. This is what can make it difficult to act with integrity every day.
I am honored to be the 2020 Philadelphia Integrity Icon People’s Choice). I have absolutely no doubt this honor greatly contributed to my selection as the 2021 NASSP National Principal of the Year and the national platform my school has recently benefited.
Despite our differences, incorporating the practice of acting with integrity over time means each of us are responsible for developing our moral compass; each day, you must consciously choose to live your life and decide how to treat others and society at large. And no matter how difficult life will get—and it will for us all—we can’t abandon our morality in light of life’s trials and tribulations. That is when we must hold on to our integrity even tighter.
I am honored to be the 2020 Philadelphia Integrity Icon People’s Choice, in this acknowledgement’s inaugural year. I have absolutely no doubt this honor greatly contributed to my selection as the 2021 NASSP National Principal of the Year and the national platform my school has recently benefited.
As a Philadelphia public official, I recognize that my life and actions are open for everyone to see, and I can’t worry about hiding things. I can assure you, I am far from perfect, and the notion of leading with integrity is a daily goal and destination, because integrity can determine what your reputation will be and any single poor choice can destroy a lifetime of work as a steward of the public trust.
I must always do my best to not only minimize my personal and professional imperfections, but also be consciously aware of my choices to forestall lapses in judgement that will interfere with the education of the students of Philadelphia, work I believe is one of the highest moral responsibilities one could be blessed to undertake. Our school work environment and our work with our students must be built on trust, accountability to the public, advocacy for equity, equality, and acceptance.
In order to live and lead with integrity, I merely rely on three concepts:
- Core Values: To develop and protect integrity, I start by identifying my core values, those ethics I find to be my “non-negotiables” I refuse to compromise on, no matter the circumstances. Each day I reflect on what I believe is right, and I decide how I can stand for what’s right. Each day, I consider my fundamental beliefs about life and what’s truly important. My hope is that identifying my core values will help guide my behaviors, decisions, and actions accordingly. Knowing who I am and what are my core values brings a sense of purpose and self-worth regarding who I am and who I want to be at my core.
- Commitment to Developing a Culture of Integrity: To develop a culture of integrity, I must ensure that my work includes building my team’s and my students’ self-confidence and nurturing my relationships. I believe a culture of integrity exists at Paul Robeson High School because we all work daily to ensure every stakeholder is perceived as trustworthy and ethical. In addition, our actions match our words. I believe it is our communal responsibility to create an atmosphere of honest, ethical behavior within the workplace because it significantly impacts the very livelihood and infrastructure of one’s professional community.
- Accountability: I believe a key to preserving a personal and professional culture of accountability is to ensure that the virtues of our school community are propagated by school leadership and carried out by our stakeholders. As leaders and public officials, we are the leaders that set our organizational culture in the workplace. If we want to live and lead with integrity, and preserve this, we must ensure that our expectations on what is right and wrong as an organization is clear. Thus, we then take painstaking efforts to hold one another accountable to poor choices. Striving for any degree of accountability supports your communication as being open, honest, and inclusive of everyone. Again, leadership sets the community standard, so as leaders, we must be humble enough to understand and accept the importance of being accountable by being “answerable” to the organization that equally employs a “bottom-up” as it does a “top-down” approach.
Living and leading with integrity is tough, especially when you must do things you may not want to do or feel like doing when challenged through your most difficult times. I realized that this week. However, this week also reminded me of what drove my professional journey from the beginning: by reconnecting with my motivations, even after facing challenges that can test my integrity and question my comfort level, I realize that my continued commitment to act with integrity will always be difficult, but extremely rewarding.
To me, integrity means following my moral convictions and doing the right thing in all circumstances, even if no one is watching you, even if I am surrounded by life-changing challenges. I hope to continue to be true to myself and do nothing that demeans or dishonors me, my family, or those I am so privileged to serve each and every day. I hope to continue to learn from my mistakes, embrace my strengths, seek help for my shortcomings, and pray my personal and professional efforts will shine a light on the path of service for others to follow.
Richard M. Gordon IV, principal of Paul Robeson High School, was the people’s choice for The Citizen’s inaugural Integrity Icon, a contest to recognize the city workers who work hardest and most ethically for Philadelphians. Nominate a city worker here.
Header photo courtesy Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders