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Wednesday, January 4

Ethics Corner: Ethical Leadership Based on the NASW Code of Ethics

Ruth Lipschutz, LCSW, ACSW

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I have just returned from the NASW Ohio state conference. Their theme this year was Effective Leadership: Built on the Code of Ethics. Effective leadership based on the NASW Code of Ethics translates to ethical leadership. The code purpose states: “[E]thical responsibilities flow from all human relationships, from the personal and familial to the social and professional.” The implication is that, as social workers, the goal is to integrate the fundamental values of the profession into every aspect of our lives.

The title of the Ohio conference was “Leadership with Vision.” Leadership is not specific to a position, role, or skill set. "The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion (Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame).” It involves, “knowing yourself, having a vision that is communicated well, taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential” (Warren Bennis).

In Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, Paul Schmitz states that leadership is not simply about being in charge. Leadership is earned “by the values, practice, and responsibilities you take on.” He offers the example of The U.S. Army Field Leadership Manual that utilizes the following model:

Be: Know who you are, be aware of your own values, vision, and what guides you.
Know: Have the knowledge base and skills to realize your vision and goals.
Do: Living into and exemplifying your values on a daily basis and putting into practice the tangible steps to achieve the goals.

Leadership is also the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. We choose to assume a role based on our values and vision, independent of our assigned role or position. Ethical leadership is about how we approach and manage each situation in our personal and professional lives. Whether we are the director of an agency, are working in the community, or are involved in clinical practice, we are attempting “to persuade others to see something from a new perspective and to motivate them to take action on behalf of that perspective” (Jaime Chahin, PhD Ethical Leadership and Values).

A clear vision results from awareness of our own values. Values are distinguishable elements denoting preference based on belief or obligation, our attitudes about the worth of people, concepts, or things. Values underlie our highest priorities as well as our deeply held driving forces and beliefs. Our personal values define where we spend our time if we are truly living them. Will we be the same person at home as at work? How do we interact in various community settings?

As social workers, ethical leadership is fundamentally about having the insight and courage to live out our values when there is pressure to compromise or rationalize them away. It is in situations where we are faced with ethical dilemmas—competing duties that require rank ordering of value—that ethical leadership is most needed.

Professional ethics are at the core of social work. “The NASW Code of Ethics offers a set of values, principles, and standards to guide decision-making and conduct when ethical issues arise. It does not provide a set of rules that prescribe how social workers should act in all situations. Ethical behavior should result from personal commitment to engage in ethical practice. Principles and standards must be applied by individuals of good character who discern moral questions and, in good faith, seek to make reliable ethical judgments (NASW Code of Ethics).”

The purpose section of the Code of Ethics states:

“[S]ocial workers also should be aware of the impact on ethical decision making of their clients' and their own personal values and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Ethical decision making in a given situation must apply the informed judgment of the individual social worker and should also consider how the issues would be judged in a peer review process where the ethical standards of the profession would be applied. Actions should be consistent with the spirit as well as the letter of this Code.”

The core values embodied in the Code of Ethics are:

Service: Elevate service to others over self-interest.
Social Justice: Pursue social change, nondiscrimination, cultural awareness, equal access.
Dignity and Worth of the Person: Respect, cultural sensitivity, self-determination, dual responsibility to clients and society.
Human Relationships: Vehicle for change; way to strengthen and restore individuals and communities.
Integrity: Being trustworthy and honest, self-assessment, promoting ethical practices.
Competence: Practice within areas of expertise, increase knowledge, contribute to the profession.

The Code of Ethics does not specify which values, principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in instances when they conflict. It acknowledges the possibility of conflicts within sections of the code and the need to consider the context of in any situation.

A central conflict or challenge that most social workers face frequently is in the area of service. We are asked to draw on our “knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems.” This value can only be truly and consistently lived into when it is in balance with using “knowledge, values, and skills to help” ourselves. Ethical leadership and practice requires social workers to do critical thinking, make difficult and crucial decisions, manage our own human reactions, interact respectfully with clients, colleagues and organizations and contribute to the mission of “enhancing human well-being”. It is impossible to achieve this vision if we are burned out, exhausted, ill, stressed out, or chronically overextended. Ethical competence is closely associated with the concept of emotional competence or intelligence which determines our awareness level and how well we handle ourselves and each other. It means knowing both what our clients need and what we need to be successful.

Leadership qualities embraced by the Code of Ethics include the following:

  • Leading in a manner that respects the rights and dignity of others
  • Assisting followers in gaining a sense of personal competence that allows them to be self-sufficient
  • Encouraging and empowering others
  • Leadership with, from behind, or shoulder-to-shoulder
  • Awareness of how decisions impact others
  • Using personal and social power to serve the greater good instead of self-serving interests (avoiding conflicts of interest)
  • Combines ethical behavior and ethical decision-making

Bill Grace offers a model for values-based leaders. It is very compatible with the NASW Code of Ethics. He describes some of the following traits of values-based leaders:

  • Remain grounded in a sense of self-understanding that lends stability to their purpose and keeps them pursuing their vision over the long haul.
  • Actively notice where their practice is not in alignment with their primary values and continually make adjustments to increase conformity to their ideals.
  • Know when they face moral choices and exercise courage to wrestle with competing values, make the choice, and defend their decisions.
  • Earn the respect of their peers because they are reliable, trustworthy, and consistent.

The Code of Ethics is aspirational. It offers guidance in the daily process of personal and professional decision-making. Ethical leadership is about who we are and how we live our lives. Ask yourself what is truly important in your life. If you listed five values and had to rank them in order, which would rise to the top? Where am I living into my values and where are they compromised? In the final analysis, it comes back to our own willingness to ask difficult questions and act on the answers.

Ruth Lipschutz, LCSW, ACSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with postgraduate certification in ethics, mediation, Transformational Imagery, hypnotherapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). She received her MSW from the University of Illinois in 1978 and went on to complete the two-year postgraduate training program of the Institute for Family Studies at Northwestern University. She has extensive experience in the areas of ethics, mental health, addictions, traumatology, program development and implementation, supervision, consultation and Alternative Dispute Resolution. She is the chairperson of NASW’s National Ethics Committee and has served as a panelist, consultant, mediator, and trainer for the NASW Illinois Chapter Ethics Committee. She is currently in private practice.

Posted on 01/04/12 at 11:30 AM


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