The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Developing Leaders' Ethical Capacities: Using the Ethical Leadership Decision-Making Framework

  • Published
  • By John M. Hinck, Robert S. Hinck, Derrick “NEKO” Iwanenko, and Steven B. Davis

The Need for Developing Leaders’ Ethical Capacities

This article explores the importance of developing leaders’ ethical capacities by expanding on previous scholarship, emphasizing AU’s QEP efforts, and providing a novel framework that supports developing ethically minded leaders in their decision-making. In relation to leadership and ethics, the Ethical Leadership Decision Making (ELDM) Framework situates decision-making in a three-part way focused on the agent (individual), the act (behavior), and the outcome (consequences) that align with the ethical leadership framework in AU’s Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) efforts[1] and bridges ethical worldviews of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism.[2]

In the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command (LDC), a two-week course focused on strengthening a leader’s human domain capacity, participants make decisions involving a range of command-like decisions, most notably related to discipline and justice, accountability, and leading in crisis.[3] LDC Students overwhelmingly reported that they wanted a better way or a framework to make decisions regarding the handling of the case scenarios during the Discipline & Justice Seminar.[4] LDC Students are not alone in how they interpret a challenging situation involving discipline and justice and applying the Uniform of Military Justice (UCMJ), particularly when race and gender are present. “In the Air Force, black airmen on average are 1.71 times (71%) more likely to face court-martial or Non-Judicial Punishment (NJP) than white airmen.”[5] Furthermore, the 2020 U.S. Air Force (USAF) Inspector General (IG) Survey reported,

“Racial disparity isn’t an easy topic, and something we don’t traditionally talk about much throughout our levels of command. This report and the many engagements with Airmen and Space Professionals have increased chain of command awareness and an opportunity to build trust. Now we must all move forward with meaningful, lasting and sustainable change to do so.”[6]

Our current Chief of Staff of the USAF, General Brown said, “The [2020] IG’s survey and interviews are noteworthy in that they empowered Airmen and Space Professionals to provide their unfiltered personal perspectives and experiences, and they delivered loud and clear.”[7] And our actions must be in step with our words. Racial bias training has been shown to improve understanding of personal and cultural biases[8] and has potential to help leaders understand racial disparities as they relate to broader diversity and inclusion initiatives.[9] For the LDC faculty, the challenge was how to improve the student experience in making ethically related decisions on discipline and justice during the course while also developing leaders’ ethical capacities who better understand racial disparity and racial bias in our military justice system.

To answer the challenge, the authors employed a three-phase qualitative research design: 1) designing an ethical leadership decision-making framework followed by 2) implementing the framework during the accountability and discipline & justice seminars in the LDC curriculum, and then 3) modifying gender and race in two of the five cases used in the discipline & justice seminar to determine to what degree if racial bias existed in students’ solutions to the presented cases. Each seminar had different gender and race as part of the characteristics in the two case studies. The research team gathered data from AY 22 end-of-course surveys (n=894) that invited feedback on the ELDM Framework that was taught and used by students during the accountability and discipline & justice seminars and examined data collected from the modified cases (n=492). The findings are presented in two parts of developing and employing the ELDM Framework. 

Developing the Ethical Leadership Decision-Making (ELDM) Framework

The ELDM Framework was developed in two steps. The first step involved using the ethical leadership framework found in the QEP[10] and then scaffolding on elements from virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism[11] so that decisions would be framed using concepts of agent, act, and outcome. 

Agent frame prefers virtue ethics that include others’ motives, intentions, and overall character. Example: A person of good character and high performer makes a one-time or aberrant mistake or had good intentions, so you decide not to highly punish or give light punishment. The motives and right actions of someone align more with a utilitarian approach where right v. wrong come into play in relation to the degree of happiness or unhappiness that is achieved.[12]

Act frame focuses on duties, obligations, and regulations that one must follow. Example: A person violated a policy. Regardless of their intentions or quality of character, you decide to punish them because the rules exist to be followed. The sense of duty and morality of actions connect more to deontology.[13]

Outcome frame is connected to the overarching totality of consequences, both intended and unintended. Example: A person violated a small rule/policy, but because your organization has a history of this problem recurring, you decide that a deterrence message needs to be sent, so you select a higher level of punishment. The consequences of the situation connect strongly with consequentialism.[14]

As shown in Figure 1, the frames of agent, act, and outcome connect to the three components that comprise the QEP’s ethical capacity of Airman, Leader of Airmen (Group) and the Air Force (institution).

Figure 1. The Ethical Leadership Decision Making (ELDM) Framework[15]










Employing the ELDM Framework

The ELDM Framework was taught and employed across 13 iterations of the LDC with a total of 894 students. Students and instructors responded favorably to the ELDM Framework. Instructors reported that the ELDM Framework provided a clear, concise, and meaningful way to frame discussions around ethical decision-making and improved their teaching effectiveness during the seminars on accountability and discipline & justice. Students had an overwhelmingly positive response:

  • "I understand how I see the situation through the three frames (agent-outcome-act).”
  • “Now, I have a clearer way [framework] about how to decide on discipline.”
  • “I can see how others are making their decisions-right or wrong.”
  • “While not perfect, the framework provides me a way to make a more ethical decision in the D&J cases.”

 The student responses indicating an increased understanding of ethical decision-making via the ELDM Framework align with the AU’s effort to improve and sustain ethical decision-making across a continuum of learning.[16] 

The deeper understanding of how leaders made decisions and a framework of how their peers (others) made ethical decisions is consistent with the QEP as well as speaks to a comprehension of the tension across the spectrum of worldviews involving virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism.[17]

More specifically, 471 of the 492 students who participated in the “hot seats” during the discipline and justice cases reported that the ELDM Framework was extremely helpful to very helpful in helping them make UCMJ-type decisions:

• Extremely Helpful 395 (80.3%)
• Very Helpful 76 (15.4%)
• Somewhat Helpful 18 (3.7%)
• Slightly Helpful 3 (0.6%)
• Not at all Helpful 0 (0%)


With a solid framework, we then modified gender (male and female) and race (Black/African American, Asian, Caucasian/White, and Hispanic) in two scenarios across all seminars. This was done based on analysis and findings in the 2020 USAF DAF IG’s Report of Inquiry: Independent Racial Disparity Review and several institutional reports or programs on reducing racial disparity.[18] However, when examining the decisions by students (n=56) in those modified cases, there was no significant/statistical difference in decision-making with respect to either gender or race. From the limited data, there were no clear patterns of decision-making that favored a specific gender or race. Hence, we were unable to determine if any racial bias was present possibly because the discipline & justice seminar is delivered on Day 5 and students have been immersed to human domain content that affect their decision-making or because the scenarios only present gender/race in writing with no accompanying photos, so the experience is less visceral. By the end of AY23, we expect to have 122 data points for further analysis.

Contributions and Next Steps

The research provides five key contributions to field leadership, ethics, and ethical leadership, as well as provides insights for practitioners and scholars.

  • Provides a framework for students and others to understand how decisions are made regarding discipline and justice.
  • The ELDM Framework was shown to help students make decisions with a >95% extremely/very helpful rating.
  • Connects learning to and supports AU’s QEP.
  • Offers empirical understanding of and connects (albeit limited) racial bias to personal and cultural biases and the broader diversity and inclusion initiatives within AU and our Air and Space Forces. 
  • Addresses findings from the 2020 DAF IG’s Report of Inquiry: Independent Racial Disparity Review and the 2017 Racial Disparities in Military Justice: Findings of Substantial and Persistent Racial Disparities Within the United States Military Justice System.

The five next steps to take to strengthen the framework include 1) broadening data collection with a larger participant pool; 2) comparing decisions made by students over multiple LDCs; 3) inviting students to discuss the differences and any indications of racial disparity across scenarios; 4) connecting racial bias to personal and cultural biases as well as broader diversity and inclusion initiatives; and 5) continuing to socialize and improve the ELDM Framework in our communities.


This article showed the need to increase leaders’ ethical capacities, development of the Ethical Leadership Decision Making (ELDM) Framework, employment of the ELDM along with positive student and instructor feedback, inconclusive results relating to decisions involving racial bias, and a deeper awareness of students regarding making decisions with a framework of “Agent-Act-Outcome.” While elements of the study require improvement in how modified cases are developed, the Ethical Leadership Decision Making (ELDM) Framework clearly and strongly answers the request of students to better understand how they make ethical decisions regarding discipline and justice. 

Dr. John M. Hinck
Serving as an Assistant Professor of Leadership at Air University and Deputy Director-Education with the Leadership & Innovation Institute (Air War College), Dr. Hinck teaches core courses and electives for AWC and ACSC and teaches in the Leader Development Course (Eaker Center for Leadership Development). A former Apache Longbow Pilot and Army Colonel with 22+ years of service as a combat leader/pilot, two-time battalion commander, and ODIN TF commander, Dr. Hinck has 60 scholarships/publications with recent ones on the strategic competition involving the Indo-Pacific region, “A Three-Part Leadership Framework for the Cyber Community”, and 2022 book, Badges of Honor: Stories of the Head, Heart, and Hand.

Dr. Robert S. Hinck
Dr. Robert S. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media. His teaching and research have been recognized for excellence by multiple institutions, including most recently being awarded the Ira C. Eaker Center’s 2022 Educator of the Year.

Col. Derrick “NEKO” Iwanenko, EdD
Serving as the Vice Commandant at Officer Training School (OTS), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Col Iwanenko is responsible for the development and commissioning of over 3,000 Officer Trainees and OTS Staff Members annually. As an Active-Duty USAF Officer with 21+ years of service, Col Iwanenko is a Master Air Battle Manager amassing 1,700+ flying hours (500+ combat) in the E-8 JSTARS, E-3 AWACS, and CRC weapon systems. Col Iwanenko teaches core and elective courses for OTS and AWC and has contributed to several presentations and publications to include being selected as the Winner, U.S. Air Force Senior Leadership Innovation Award, Air War College, Air University for The Commander’s Chronicles:  Exploring Leadership Theory Through Case Study Design, Graduate Professional Studies Paper, Academic Year 2021.

Dr. Steven B. Davis
Dr. Steven Davis is an Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Leadership and Innovation Institute at the United States Air Force’s Air University. Steve’s primary duty at Air University is teaching the CSAF Leader Development Course (LDC), where he also serves as director of faculty development. He also teaches a variety of courses on leadership and leader development for Air War College and Air Command and Staff College. He has won awards for scholarship, education, service, servant leadership, diversity and inclusion, and organizational excellence. Steven grew up in San Antonio Texas, and after earning his BA in sociology at Texas A&M University he moved to Germany for several years where he worked as a business and cultural communication consultant and educator. After obtaining a MA degree from the University of Bremen he returned to Texas A&M and completed his PhD in history with a minor in sociology. He has published and given scholarly conference presentations on leadership, teaching and learning, faculty development, institutional effectiveness, and social and organizational identities in Central Europe.



[1.] Two key sources to better understand AU’s QEP efforts are: Air University, Air University quality enhancement plan: Leadership and ethics across the continuum of learning. (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 2019) and Kenneth R. Tatum, Laura Parson, Jessica Weise, Megan Allison, and R. Joel Farrell, “Leadership and Ethics across the Continuum of Learning The Ethical Leadership Framework” Air and Space Power Journal, 33, no. 4 (Winter 2019), 42-57.

[2.] The following sources are useful for understanding the broader ethical frameworks of virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology: Dallas Card and Noah A. Smith, “On Consequentialism and Fairness,” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, 3, no. 34 (20 May 2020): 1-11. doi: 10.3389/frai.2020.00034. Jennifer Barrow and Paras Khandhar, “Deontology,” StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing, Originally published in Jan 2022; updated 19 Oct 2022,; Po-En Tseng and Ya-Huei Wang, “Deontological or Utilitarian? An Eternal Ethical Dilemma in Outbreak,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, no. 16 (2021): 8565.; Sheila Bonde and Paul Firenze, “A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions,” Science and Technology Studies Webpage, Brown University, 13 May 2013,; Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Nov. 2003), see pages 25-62,

[3.] Leader Development Course, “Smart Card and Executive Summary,” Leader Development Course for Squadron Command, 2022,

[4.] John Hinck and Steve Davis, “LDC End of Course Report,” (as reported via data collected from Instructor Daily Huddles from 15 LDCs and Students’ End of Course Surveys, n=889), Leader Development Course for Squadron Command, 2021-2022,

[5.] Protect Our Defenders’ Racial Disparities in Military Justice, “Findings of Substantial and Persistent Racial Disparities Within the United States Military Justice System,” (2017), i.

[6.] U.S. Air Force, DAF IG’s Report of Inquiry: Independent Racial Disparity Review (Pentagon, Washington D.C., U.S. Air Force, 2020), 1-89, 130-133.

[7.] U.S. Air Force, “Department of the Air Force releases findings on racial disparity review,” Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force, December 21, 2020,

[8.] Two sources help with the argument: Jason Nance, “Over-Disciplining Students, Racial Bias, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, UF Law Scholarship Repository, UF Law Faculty Publications Faculty Scholarship, 2016,; Robert Smith, “Reducing Racially Disparate Policing Outcomes: Is Implicit Bias Training the Answer,” University of Hawaii Law Review, 295 (2015),

[9.] DAF IG, Report of Inquiry; Tomas Diaz, J. Renee Navarro, and Esther Chen, “An Institutional Approach to Fostering Inclusion and Addressing Racial Bias: Implications for Diversity in Academic Medicine, Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 32, no. 1, (2020): 110–116.

[10.] AU QEP, 2019.

[11.] See endnote no. 2.

[12.] Hursthouse, “On Virtue Ethics”; Tseng and Wang, “Deontological or Utilitarian?”.

[13.] Barrow and Khandhar,  “Deontology”; Tseng and Wang, “Deontological or Utilitarian?”

[14.] Card and Smith, “On Consequentialism and Fairness”; Bonde and Firenze, “Making Ethical Decisions.”

[15.] Developed based on the ethical capacity framework found in AU’s QEP, 2019, 19-21.

[16.] Tatum, et al., “Leadership and Ethics”; AU, QEP.

[17.] See endnote no. 2.

[18.] DAF IG, Report of Inquiry; Nance, “Over-Disciplining Students”; Smith, “Reducing Racially Disparate Policing Outcomes”; Diaz, Navarro, and Chen, “An Institutional Approach”.

Wild Blue Yonder Home