A Model for Ethical Professional Practice and Leadership

A Model for Ethical Professional Practice and Leadership

Jonathan O’Brien, California State University, Long Beach

As practitioners, we share values and principles that are the foundation of our profession. How we implement them is filtered through our family traditions, life experiences, and the preparation and training we received in formal education.  Once employed, we are also obliged to support the missions and goals of our institutions and functional areas (Hirt, 2006; Tull & Madrano, 2008). Although I have stated this rather straightforwardly, it’s not this simple. Anyone with time in our field knows that personal dilemmas and interpersonal conflicts about ethical issues are common.

In this column, I start with the assumption that ethical conflicts present us with opportunities to develop ethical competency. “Ethical Professional Practice” is the only competency area recognized by our largest professional associations as an “integral component of all the competency areas” (ACPA & NASPA, 2010, p. 12). An ethical practitioner is obligated to “explain how one’s professional practice also aligns with one’s personal code of ethics and ethical statements of professional student affairs associations” (p. 12). Although ethical practice is so central to our work, there are surprisingly few theoretical tools to guide reflection, dialogue, and leadership around this topic. I will offer a model for thinking about ethical professional practice and its integral role in promoting dialogue and leadership.

The Attitude Problem

As a former supervisor and now a faculty member in a student affairs preparation program, I find that professional conduct is very difficult to teach and evaluate. We have resources to describe the knowledge and skills required for practice (CAS, 2006; ACPA/NASPA, 2010). We also have conferences, training, and knowledge communities that increase our awareness of self and others. However, I have not yet found a concise and useful way to guide the exploration of moral conduct or to translate this behavior into ethical leadership that is reflective of the values and competencies of our field.

In reality, it can be difficult to articulate the conduct we are trying to evaluate and develop. We tend to focus on the extremes or our feedback is too vague or too selective. A constructively critical conversation about character lapses, if poorly facilitated, can insult those on the receiving end. Additionally, I am sensitive to the ways that the term ‘attitude’ has been abused by those from privileged groups to marginalize people, often from minority populations, who advocate for social change. It can be easy for those in power to dismiss persistent advocacy as a bad attitude. Instead, it might be more productive to discuss behavior and avoid the term ‘attitude,’ which is often offensive or confusing.

Many documents enumerate values and principles in student affairs; yet, universal agreement is elusive (Reason & Broido, 2011). As our campuses diversify, students and colleagues bring with them values and perspectives that challenge conventional notions of what is morally acceptable and ethically defensible. Every day we read about ethical issues, such as increases in internet-based plagiarism (Gabriel, 2010), secret video recordings of sexual encounters to avoid allegations of rape (Bazelon, 2009), male students who refuse to work with female peers on religious grounds (Slaughter, 2014), or objections to gender-neutral housing (Fowler, 2013).

Conflict as a Source for Reflective Practice

Kwame Appiah (2010) aptly noted that the most intense conflicts are between individuals who can agree on the definition of the values they share but quarrel bitterly over how best to implement them. Campus conflicts can arise from many sources, like feeling disrespected by our colleagues or the realization that we are complicit in institutional structures that suppress dissent (Holmes, Edwards, & DeBowes, 2009). Unfortunately, we can frustrate our efforts to support students when we are quick to vilify those who disagree with our positions and implementation strategies.

When viewed as critical incidents, conflicts with ethical implications become opportunities to explore our ethical professional practice.  A critical incident is an actual event, bounded in time and history, involving people, practices, and policies. Try this exercise to identify a critical incident:

Take a moment to identify a specific incident in which you were most proud of what you did, although others advised you not to do it or they questioned your motives. Instead, you took action and you were right!

Identify the incident:

  • The facts: when, where, who was involved?
  • What was your role/title/position?
  • What were your goals and intentions in the situation?
  • What was the outcome?

C3 Model of Ethical Professional Practice

The model I propose here is intended to facilitate reflection and promote dialogue on ethical practice. I refer to it as the C3 model, as it constructs ethical professional practice across three domains: (a) consciousness, the awareness of self and situation; (b) capacity, appropriate knowledge and skills required to act responsibly; and, (c) character, the motives and values that drive our response to a critical incident. Each of these domains combines in varying degrees in order to produce the observable behaviors that others recognize as our ethical conduct. This process is subjective and, although it often occurs without much thought, I contend that we are able to choose how we respond to a critical incident, especially if we commit to reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses in each domain.

C3 Ethics Model

The model is a synthesis of two theories that describe moral conduct. The first theory, on the origins of moral behavior (Rest & Narvaez, 1994), posits that ethical behavior is the result of an interaction of four subjective functions, including an individual’s sensitivity to an ethical dilemma, judgment to select the best course of action, motivation to prioritize values, and the character to act ethically, even in the face of resistance from others. The second theory describes the character of professional educators as dispositions, an individual’s motivation to act with awareness and intention in a given context (Splitter, 2010).  The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (n.d.) defined them as the “habits of professional action and moral commitments that underlie an educator’s performance.”

Although the concept of dispositions is relatively new to student affairs literature, I prefer it to attitudes when describing moral conduct in professional practice; the former has a long tradition in virtue ethics. It describes the relatively stable patterns of thought and emotion that produce behaviors that we tend to display consistently over time (Timpe, n.d.). The term attitudes is problematic for me, since its common usage describes moods or temporary states. Dispositions are the enduring influences on our behavior that others come to perceive as our character.

Since they emanate from the personal values and beliefs of individuals, dispositions are difficult to teach; yet, they are essential for ethical professional practice and can be brought to light. O’Shea (2011) described how dispositions are best learned by “a synthesis of traditional classroom instruction in the intellectual virtues with experiential influences and critical self-reflection” (p. 4). Employers expect positive dispositions from candidates as well. In a content analysis of more than 1,700 job descriptions for administrative positions in student affairs, Hoffman and Bresciani (2012) found the dispositions most highly sought after by employers included diversity and social justice, creativity, enthusiasm, flexibility, and positive attitude.

Who am I? Professional Dispositions and the C3 Model

If we accept that dispositions are underlying patterns of thought and emotion that produce our ethical conduct, then it helps us to know and articulate them to others. The C3 model provides a means to do this, through its framework of consciousness, capacity, and character. When we can define the components of our dispositions, share these realizations with others, and learn about theirs, we are inevitably more aware, competent, and authentic practitioners who lead ethically.

How can we identify our dispositions?  One way is to examine our responses to critical incidents. Using the critical incident identified above, reflect on it using this protocol based on the C3 model:

  • What drew your attention to this situation as an ethical concern?
  • What skills and knowledge did you use in this situation?
  • What values and beliefs motivated you to do something?

The answers to these questions form the basis of a description of the professional dispositions an individual uses in response to a critical incident. In the same way that we learn to articulate our skills and academic degrees to employers and colleagues, we can also concisely convey who we are as a practitioner and ethical leader. Here’s an example, from a new professional:

My passion for students and commitment to open access education, diversity, and student success aligns well with the mission of the institution and will guide me as I engage with students and colleagues as an outreach and recruitment advisor.

When we communicate our ethical conduct as professional dispositions, we engage colleagues, potential employers, and supervisors authentically and from a position of strength about the unique contributions we make as leaders in the profession and our institutions.

Levels of Ethical Professional Practice

Ethical professional practice is aligned with standards and performed in an institutional context; yet, what we believe to be ethical may, in fact, be contrary to the perceptions held by supervisors and colleagues in the exact same contexts. In the table below, I apply the C3 model to three levels of practice, informed by the social change model of leadership (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996). The levels are practitioner (person), profession (group), and institution (society).  There is a critical question at each level to prompt deliberation on the roles and conduct we accept as we strive to be ethical leaders in the profession and in our institutions.

Level of Practice Critical Question C3 Domains and Leadership Roles
    Consciousness Capacity Character
Practitioner Who am I? Aware Competent Authentic
Profession Who are we? Learners Servants Colleagues


What is our influence? Teaching Leading Advocating

I don’t claim that the roles I present here are the only ones; rather, I suggest how the C3 model can be implemented at each level of practice. For example, at the professional level, we need ethical leaders who are learners, open to acquiring new skills, ideas, and values. Leaders also ought to be servants, who share skills and knowledge with each other to achieve common goals for the greater good (Greenleaf, 2002). Authenticity at the practitioner level facilitates mutual regard for our colleagues, as individuals worthy of respect and grace.

Ethical Dialogue

At the professional level, we use dialogue to engage colleagues in discussions about ethical standards and moral conduct that is acceptable in our work environments. Dialogue is an exchange of perspectives that transcends mere conversation (Sundberg & Fried, 1997). It can get contentious when we must make ethical decisions involving people or practices that we support, yet we disagree about how to take action. If properly facilitated, the open and authentic exploration of others’ perspectives in dialogue expands our individual consciousness (Schoem & Hurtado, 2001).

We do not have to agree with another’s perspective in order to engage in dialogue and we may retain our positions. However, we cannot escape dialogue and become ethical relativists either. Although we may be tempted to roll our eyes to the skies and say “whatever!” with a sigh, we must resist the temptation. Sometimes the best we can do is engage in dialogue to understand another’s viewpoint. The real challenge is to remain open to the possibility that we are wrong and to take the opportunity to learn about ourselves.

The NASPA Ethics Statement (2012) provides a useful guide to “ethical decision making that is based on context and dialogue” (p. 2). It is motivated by two key questions:

  • How can we act ethically to maintain the integrity of everyone involved in contested situations?
  • How can we appreciate the diversity of ethical beliefs across cultures without enforcing a single ethical belief system?

These questions guide the process of discernment for ethical action. Although they are primarily directed to individuals, the questions focus on important ethical considerations that must be incorporated into dialogue about critical incidents.

What is our influence?

In the C3 model, the institutional level refers both to our educational institutions and to those organized entities in society with which our particular educational institution interacts (e.g., governments, religious communities, regulatory agencies). As ethical practitioners, we work through professional networks on campus and across the field of student affairs to influence positive social and political change. Accordingly, the C3 model suggests that teaching is a role of ethical leaders, who impart knowledge or skill related to the concerns of students and campuses. We are also leading others ethically toward worthy goals that advance broad interests. And, as ethical leaders, we commit to advocating on behalf of others who are not at the table or cannot speak for themselves.

Where do we go from here?

In this column I proposed a framework for looking at the ethical conduct of individuals across three domains: consciousness, capacity, and character. Through dialogue with colleagues we can explore and define the roles and tasks that characterize our leadership. I have also suggested how the same domains can be applied to our interactions with colleagues; and, in turn, these same domains describe our collective efforts as a profession to take the lead in making ethical social change.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe your practice using the C3 model? Where are your strengths? Where do you have room to grow? How will you do this?
  2. Are the roles and tasks identified in the table relevant to your experience at the professional and institutional levels? How would you and your colleagues revise it?
  3. What are some critical incidents that you and your colleagues share? How might you engage in dialogue to explore your perspectives on ethical leadership at your institution?


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About the Author

Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership and coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program at California State University, Long Beach. He teaches law and ethics and qualitative research methods. Jonathan has worked at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky, and California. His consulting and scholarship focus on assisting students in personal crisis and promoting professional conduct in student affairs practice.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan O’Brien.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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