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, and poverty.

All of this leads me to wonder: As a high school principal, how do I continue to lead my school during one of the most challenging social climates in Philadelphia’s history to date?

My solution: Preserve your integrity, at all costs.

» READ MORE: A reminder that self-care is an essential part of caregiving for a loved one | Expert Opinion

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 grounded in 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 conferred upon someone just because one wants it to be. It is a value that is developed over time by knowing in our hearts and minds what is the right thing to do and 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 was honored to be named the 2020 Philadelphia Integrity Icon by the Philadelphia Citizen, in this acknowledgment’s inaugural year. I have no doubt that 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 from. 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 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.

We all have imperfections, but I always try to minimize mine and make the best choices. I don’t want anything to interfere with the education of Philly students, work I believe comes with one of the highest moral responsibilities one could be blessed with. Our school environment and our work with our students must be built on trust, accountability to the public, and advocacy for equity, equality, and acceptance.

In order to live and lead with integrity, I rely on three concepts:

  1. I started by identifying my core values, those ethics I find to be the “nonnegotiables” 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.

  2. I also take steps to ensure that my work includes building my team’s and my students’ self-confidence and nurturing my relationships. I believe it is our communal responsibility to create an atmosphere of honest, ethical behavior within the workplace because it significantly impacts the livelihood and infrastructure of one’s professional community.

  3. I remember that I am accountable as the leader who sets the organizational culture in my workplace. If we want to live and lead with integrity, and preserve this, we must ensure that our expectations for what is right and wrong as an organization are clear.

Living and leading with integrity is tough, especially when you must do things you may not feel like doing when challenged through your most difficult times.

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 every day. I hope to continue to learn from my mistakes, embrace my strengths, and seek help for my shortcomings. I pray my personal and professional efforts will shine a light on the path of service for others to follow.

Richard M. Gordon IV, principal at Paul Robeson High School, is the Philadelphia Citizen’s inaugural Integrity Icon, a contest that recognizes the city workers who work hardest and most ethically for Philadelphians. Nominate a city worker for this year’s Integrity Icon honors at integrityicon.org/philadelphia/.