The public relies on professionals. Medicine, teaching, law, accounting, the military, the clergy, and public safety, among many others, have all been regarded as honorable professions, and their members strive to maintain high standards, including ethical leadership, professional and technical competence, integrity, conduct that garners public trust, and placing the public interest above self-interest. For the most part, they have been successful, but some have failed, and consequently the reputations of these professions have suffered.

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Accounting as a profession has received significant attention for its failures, which have resulted in attempts at improvement. The vital role of the accounting profession in serving the public interest has, however, continued to be well recognized. Arthur Levitt, former chair of the SEC, emphasized this when addressing KPMG partners in 2003:

In most businesses, the watchword is, “The customer is always right.” Accountants, however, are charged with telling the customer when he is wrong. What other profession has that responsibility? What other profession is enshrined in our nation’s securities laws to serve no interest but the public’s? What other profession so directly holds the keys to the public confidence—the lifeblood of our markets? I can think of none other but the accounting profession (“Reclaiming the Profession’s Heritage: Remarks by Arthur Levitt, Jr.,” The CPA Journal, February 2004, http://bit.ly/2k3OHtF).

One of the challenges facing the accounting profession involves developing ethical leaders. Since high school students enter college with an increasingly diverse set of values (William Stephens, Carol A. Vance, and Loyd S. Pettegrew, “Embracing Ethics and Morality: An Analytic Essay for the Accounting Profession,” The CPA Journal, January 2012, http://bit.ly/2lrBLuF), it is vital that accounting educators emphasize the values desired by the profession. Furthermore, it is important that educators reinforce the points expressed by Arthur Levitt, that accounting is a noble profession with a significant public interest responsibility.

Ethical Leaders

Over the past 25 years, the author has had the privilege to help develop ethical leaders for the U.S. Coast Guard and the accounting profession. While they have very different missions and goals, both have primary responsibility to serve the public and the public interest. Various constituencies rely on the professional knowledge and expertise of both Coast Guard service members and accountants, and both professions are counted on to demonstrate ethical leadership while providing their services to others. Both are called upon to make hard decisions based on professional and ethical standards and the circumstances of a particular situation, frequently informing those they serve that certain conduct and actions will not be accepted. In addition, those joining these two professions can expect to work long hours under challenging circumstances and demonstrate leadership skills at early stages of their careers.

A significant difference, however, is that the Coast Guard emphasizes the importance of developing ethical leaders. For example, a new Coast Guard officer can be expected to lead a shipboard division of crewmembers who are both older and more experienced in serving at sea. Furthermore, serving aboard a Coast Guard ship can involve risking one’s safety if the circumstances warrant. The Coast Guard is also more explicit in preparing its students to be ethical leaders using a structured program. This preparation appears to have a positive impact; the most recent Gallup polls titled “Honesty/Ethics in Professions” revealed that those surveyed in 2013 rated the honesty and ethical standards of 69% of military officers as high or very high, while this statistic was 39% for accountants in the 2015 survey (http://bit.ly/2kIHEna). Given these differences, accounting educators and professionals could stand to learn some valuable lessons from the Coast Guard.

Development of Coast Guard Leaders

During the time the author directed the Coast Guard Academy’s Cadet Leadership and Character Development Program, a “Leadership Across the Curriculum” effort addressed leadership and ethical development in the academic, military, and physical fitness programs, with the goal of developing “leaders of character.” Specific leadership outcomes were developed that included directing and developing others, making professional decisions and ethical judgments, functioning as a successful team member, communicating effectively, and demonstrating respect for others. Various ethical leadership developmental activities used in the leadership program are outlined below.

Emphasis on values and standards of conduct.

Integrity and ethical conduct characterize noble professions. The Coast Guard core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty were articulated in the early 1990s and have served as important moral standards for the service. In terms of developing future leaders of character, the following definition of leadership was used in the Coast Guard Academy Leadership and Character Development Program:

Leadership is the practice of good character, competence, commitment, and community through example, decisions, and actions that engage others to achieve shared objectives and aspirations (“Developing Leaders at the Coast Guard Academy: The Cadet Leadership and Character Development Program,” Patrick Kelly, Bulletin, June 1997).

The “Four Cs”—character, competence, commitment, and community—at the heart of this definition proved very helpful in focusing cadet efforts as developing leaders of character and received a great deal of emphasis throughout the program.

The accounting profession has a number of sources of professional values and standards of conduct. The principles articulated in the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct include integrity, due care, objectivity, and independence, and the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice focuses on competence, confidentiality, integrity, and credibility. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) also focuses on professional conduct and standards, addressing such topics as conflicts of interest, independence, insider trading, and codes of ethics. Accounting firms also have articulated core values. For example, Deloitte’s values are integrity, outstanding value to markets and clients, commitment to each other, and strength from cultural diversity (“The Power of Shared Values,” http://bit.ly/2k4AuYl), while KPMG’s values direct employees to act with integrity, lead by example, and respect others (“Our Values,” http://bit.ly/2knnkHb).

Many accounting faculty introduce these ethical principles in the classroom. These principles should arguably be addressed in almost every accounting course, which provides a valuable opportunity to reinforce why accountants are trusted professionals.

Commitment to professional competence and lifelong learning.

Ethical leaders in both the Coast Guard and the accounting profession recognize the need for professional and technical competence. Both vocations require the demonstration of professional knowledge by new members. For example, the Coast Guard Academy has 16 academic credits devoted to professional studies topics, along with countless military training sessions and summer programs to prepare students for their professional responsibilities. These programs are so structured and extensive that Coast Guard cadets typically have a summer leave period of only three weeks. While it may not be possible to engage accounting students in professional development activities to the same extent, added engagement and interaction with practitioners may be beneficial. This can take the form of job shadowing programs, mentor programs, internships, and firm introduction or leadership programs that promote such interaction.

Passing proficiency exams such as the CPA exam or navigational “Rules of the Road” exams is necessary but not sufficient for future professional success. While educational programs help prepare both Coast Guard and accounting students for the challenges associated with professional exams, it is more important to instill the concept of lifelong learning and the importance of learning throughout one’s career. Coast Guard careers involve advanced training in some of the most prestigious graduate programs in the United States and prepare leaders for their specialty careers, such as financial management, law, and civil engineering. While the accounting profession requires 150 credits of academic work for a CPA license, the substance of those credits is frequently flexible, and an advanced degree is not required.

Leadership skills—directing and developing others.

Ethical leaders need to possess leadership skills and the ability to direct and develop others. For Coast Guard officers, shipboard assignments after graduation provide leadership opportunities, as officers frequently lead people with more service experience. Accountants and auditors also use leadership skills to direct and develop others early in their careers, as even junior accountants guide interns and new hires. While accounting student opportunities to direct and develop others may not be as structured as for Coast Guard cadets, there remain a variety of opportunities, including student club leadership positions, leading campus orientation groups, and tutoring.

For both new accountants and Coast Guard officers, leading others involves setting clear expectations, teaching and training those new to the organization, and providing performance feedback. Certain leadership theories taught at the Coast Guard Academy lend themselves to both professions, such as servant leadership. As identified by Robert Greenleaf, this is a theory in which serving others is a priority of those in leadership positions (Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Paulist Press, 1977). Transformational leadership (James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, HarperCollins, 1978) also fits well with these professions, as leaders and followers inspire others to higher levels of moral conduct. While students learn about these theories in leadership courses, they can also be addressed in accounting courses, such as an accounting ethics course, which can focus on their application in accounting contexts.

Ethical leaders must consistently make correct moral decisions, even under challenging circumstances.

Leadership skills also involve building an ethical culture within the organization and maintaining a proper tone at the top. Maintaining an ethical tone at the top is vital for accounting firms because of the positive impact it can have on staff as they carry out their duties and interact with clients. Tone at the top has also been recognized as an accounting firm leadership issue. For example, Miriam Gerstein notes that accounting firms need ethical leadership to properly implement their ethical values and a code of conduct (“Determining Whether an Accounting Firm is Ethical,” The CPA Journal, June 2014, http://bit.ly/2llpjjb). Diane D. Fuller and Nancy K. Hyde also emphasize the importance of tone at the top, noting that “leaders must model character. It is not what they say, but what they do that makes a difference. Leaders decide whether character and ethics count” (“Establishing an Ethical Culture in a Tax Practice,” The Tax Adviser, Feb. 1, 2013, http://bit.ly/2lrVAC3).

Ethical judgment—decision-making ability.

Ethical leaders must consistently make correct moral decisions, even under challenging circumstances. James R. Rest’s four-component model of ethical decision making posits that for ethical behavior to occur, individuals must recognize ethical situations, use moral reasoning ability to arrive at the correct ethical decision, and possess both the moral motivation and the moral character to carry out the decision, even when meeting with resistance (Rest, Darcia Narvaez, Muriel J. Bebeau, and Stephen J. Thoma, Postconventional Moral Thinking: A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999). This can be accomplished by promoting ethics instruction in college classrooms, and it is seen in research such as Mary Beth Armstrong’s 1993 study (“Ethics and Professionalism in Accounting Education,” Issues in Accounting Education, March 1993, http://bit.ly/2kINVzi). For accountants, Nicholas Mastracchio, Carlos Jiminez-Angueira, and Ildiko Toth point out that certain states, including California, Texas, and Illinois, now require an ethics course for new CPA applicants (“The State of Ethics in Business and the Accounting Profession,” The CPA Journal, March 2015, http://bit.ly/2kPpjXZ). They also note that most states do have ethics continuing education requirements; for example, New York’s mandatory ethics requirement is four hours of professional ethics every three years.

At the Coast Guard Academy, students complete a required morals and ethics course as part of the core curriculum, as well as participate in a variety of honor and ethics activities. Ethical standards are established for, explained to, and expected from students, who learn that they need to act ethically to achieve success. The honor concept guides ethical conduct and emphasizes that cadets will not lie, cheat, steal, or attempt to deceive. Violations of this honor concept have serious consequences, including disenrollment.

For accountants, ethical standards and moral reasoning skills are frequently learned in undergraduate and graduate education programs as students analyze ethical cases and learn to identify ethical issues and develop the correct ethical choice. Depending on the undergraduate institution, this could be a part of the core curriculum or the business curriculum. In addition, many accounting students are educated within systems guided by academic integrity standards.

At Providence College, academic integrity policies are typically described in course syllabi. Ethics topics are addressed as part of the liberal arts core curriculum in the Development of Western Civilization four-course sequence, and students also complete a required ethics course. In the business school, students address ethics in every core business class by using Mary Gentile’s “Giving Voice to Values” (GVV) cases (http://bit.ly/2k4xHhL). Accounting students also cover ethics in every required accounting course.

Once accountants arrive at the correct ethical decision, Rest et al. suggest that they must have the moral motivation and moral character to execute the behavior. These factors are particularly important as accountants withstand client pressures. In a recent article in The CPA Journal (“From Analysis to Action: The Evolution of Accounting Ethics Education,” August 2016, http://bit.ly/2lpujiy), Stephen Mintz stresses the importance of ethical leadership and accountants’ public interest obligations to promote ethical behavior. He recommends Gentile’s GVV exercises to help simulate the accounting workplace and encourage ethical conduct.

Communications abilities.

Ethical leaders need strong communication skills, whether speaking or writing. Coast Guard officers are continually speaking and writing throughout their careers and receive training at the Coast Guard Academy on communicating directions, providing feedback, and clearly conveying orders to others. Cadets complete required writing courses and develop their writing skills at the Academy Writing Center. They also participate in an annual speaking and writing contest as part of the academic program.

Accounting professionals face similar expectations; communication is one of the Personal Core Competencies identified by the AICPA in its Core Competency Framework:

Accounting professionals are called upon to communicate financial and non-financial information so that it is understood by individuals with diverse capabilities and interests. Individuals entering the accounting profession should have the skills necessary to give and exchange information within a meaningful context and with appropriate delivery. They should have the ability to listen, deliver powerful presentations and produce examples of effective business writing.

There are many instances where accounting professionals must demonstrate communication skills. For example, auditors need to be able to effectively and persuasively communicate the results of their audits to others in leadership positions. It is vital that accounting students develop communication skills during their undergraduate and graduate educational experiences. At many colleges, this process is facilitated by writing and speaking opportunities throughout the undergraduate program. Students at Providence College complete a liberal arts-oriented core curriculum and are required to demonstrate writing proficiency in two different courses and speaking proficiency in another course.

Teamwork abilities.

Both Coast Guard officers and accounting professionals frequently serve as team members throughout their careers. Coast Guard team-related assignments include shipboard divisions and departments, followed by various large- and small-unit assignments. To prepare students to serve as effective group members, various team opportunities are provided during the undergraduate program, including military, athletics, academic, and community service experiences. The academy’s military program includes peer evaluation that provides cadets with valuable feedback on how they are functioning as effective team members.

Working in an increasingly diverse workplace also requires teamwork abilities. The Coast Guard has been addressing diversity issues for decades, both in terms of the integration of women and growth of minorities joining the service. For example, the Coast Guard Academy began enrolling women 40 years ago, and women now make up more than 30% of the Cadet Corps—the highest of any of the service academies.

Similar to Coast Guard officers, accounting professionals frequently serve on teams, including audit teams, tax and consulting teams, and special projects. There are multiple opportunities to serve on teams during one’s undergraduate accounting studies, including academic team assignments, student club and community service activities, and both intercollegiate and intramural athletics programs. Accounting students can also engage in peer evaluation of team performance in their accounting courses, which provides valuable feedback on their teamwork abilities.

The accounting profession has also made efforts to integrate women and minorities, with a recent emphasis on increasing diversity at many firms. In 2014, the AICPA founded a National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion to promote efforts to recruit and retain minorities, including developing tools to assist accounting firms in their diversity efforts (AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, Feb. 2, 2014, http://bit.ly/2kPhWjj). Many accounting firms have developed diversity programs that include efforts to both recruit and support a more diverse work force (e.g., “Our Commitment to Diversity” at PricewaterhouseCoopers, http://pwc.to/2k4o7eW; the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, http://bit.ly/2kTYvW6; and Ernst and Young’s recruiting programs, https://go.ey.com/2k4xs6G). Commitment from firm management is important if diversity programs are to succeed.

Accounting educators should also be explaining the changing nature of the increasingly diverse workplace. For many millennials, this is not a major concern, and many are more amenable to working in a diverse environment than their predecessors. For those accounting students who do need to learn about operating in a diverse work environment, undergraduate programs can provide an excellent opportunity for such development. For example, Providence College’s core curriculum includes a mandatory “diversity proficiency,” which can be met with a number of major or elective courses that specifically address diversity topics.

Followership abilities.

With today’s emphasis on leadership, there is frequently not enough focus on the concept of follow-ership. Practicing effective followership can contribute to one’s professional success and be vital for those serving in noble professions. Robert Kelley identifies five follow-ership patterns, based on two behavioral dimensions: 1) how active or passive a person is concerning task accomplishment and 2) possession of independent, critical thinking versus dependent, uncritical thinking (“In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review, November/December 1988, http://bit.ly/2kJ0b2H). He notes the importance of effective followers in an organization and identifies their essential qualities:

  • They manage themselves well.
  • They are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves.
  • They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.
  • They are courageous, honest, and credible.

Kelley further explains that effective followers are proactive in accomplishing work that contributes to the goals of the organization. They are also independent thinkers who challenge inefficient practices and question unethical actions.

Professions need effective followers and should invest in their development. Followership is stressed throughout the Coast Guard Academy cadet program, but particularly during the first year, as students learn about the Coast Guard and begin to develop a commitment to the service’s missions and values. As cadets move through the program, they assume greater supervisory responsibilities, but retain follower obligations that will continue after graduation.

Effective followers are also important to the accounting profession. Many large accounting firms are hierarchical in nature, with clear cultures and standards that must be followed. Large firm leaders, however, need to hear from followers, who may see problems that demand attention. Small firms also need effective followers who are proactive and strong critical thinkers. There are many opportunities for accounting students to learn and practice effective followership. The structured nature of the core accounting curriculum requires a great amount of student focus on task completion and independent thinking. Students regularly receive feedback on their followership performance from professors, and faculty can provide insight regarding followership roles students will fill after graduation.

Self-assessment abilities.

Given the demanding nature of serving in a profession, it is important that entrants develop self-assessment abilities. This includes the ability to self-assess one’s performance and consider what is needed for future success. It also includes maintaining the stamina to work the long hours necessary to accomplish time-critical tasks.

The Coast Guard Academy builds self-assessment into its leadership program, challenging students to achieve their potential, both professionally and personally. The cadet experience provides many opportunities for self-assessment, including different military roles, summer professional development programs, and other cadet activities. Accounting students also have opportunities for self-assessment through campus career center programs and activities, internship programs, and classroom experiences. Such self-assessment can be crucial when students select an accounting firm and career path. Accountants also need to be able to self-assess when setting goals and preparing for annual performance reviews.

Opportunities for Educator and Professional Cooperation

Experienced professionals can play a vital role in developing the ethical leaders who will follow in their footsteps. This is well established in the Coast Guard, which has been successful for decades at connecting cadet educators and those in the profession. The Coast Guard Academy maintains a military training staff and a professional development staff comprising Coast Guard officers. These instructors teach the professional development academic courses and coordinate summer training programs to prepare students for commissioned service and familiarize them with different career paths available after graduation. There is a specific focus on preparing cadets for the required professional exams and future leadership challenges. There are also frequent visits from senior officers, including the Coast Guard Commandant.

The accounting profession has also made significant progress in working with educators to develop the ethical leaders of the future. This author recommends four measures that could help: an “Introduction to the Profession” course, expanded connections with accounting professionals and students, increased faculty and professional communication and cooperation, and development of an ethics curriculum and strategies for student success after graduation.

“Introduction to the Profession” course.

This offering provides a terrific opportunity for accounting students to draw on the experiences of their elders. Such a course was developed as a one-credit requirement at Providence College 10 years ago. Accounting professionals (mainly alumni) return to campus to speak to students about their career paths, challenges they have faced during their careers, and how to best achieve professional success. The sessions during a recent semester focused on opportunities at large firms, regional and smaller firms, nonprofit organizations, finance firms, and tax and internal audit positions, along with a session on resume preparation and interviewing techniques. Students also write two papers about what they have learned during these sessions. Student feedback has been consistently positive.

Expanded connections with accounting professionals and students.

There are many other occasions for accounting professionals to connect with students, both on and off campus. Many colleges and universities have student accounting associations or Beta Alpha Psi chapters, and these organizations invite accounting professionals to speak on a variety of topics, including accounting standards, specific accounting cases, professional etiquette, and interviewing techniques. These events are frequently accompanied by social gatherings, during which students can meet the professionals on a more informal basis.

In addition, some firms have accounting case competitions that promote interactions between students and firm personnel (e.g., the PricewaterhouseCoopers Challenge competition). Job shadowing opportunities, firm-sponsored leadership programs, and internships also provide wonderful opportunities for students to learn from accounting professionals. Reinforcing the importance of the accounting profession is possible during almost all of these visits and programs.

Increased faculty and professional communication and cooperation.

Interaction between accounting faculty and practitioners appears to be increasing in recent years. Several firms have faculty newsletters that provide firm updates, along with specific firm representatives who recruit at particular institutions. Firms have provided grants for curriculum development efforts, technical updates, and engagement with faculty members, most recently at the Accounting is Big Data Conference sponsored by the American Accounting Association in September 2016. In addition, PricewaterhouseCoopers’s annual Faculty Symposium provides technical updates and access to firm personnel for discussions on a wide variety of topics.

Having accounting professionals teach accounting courses at a college or university represents another opportunity. This concept was endorsed by the Pathways Commission on Accounting Higher Education (Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants, July 2012, http://bit.ly/2k45j4w) and has worked very well at Providence College.

Development of an ethics curriculum and strategies for student success after graduation.

In the wake of accounting failures after the turn of the century, a great deal of ethics instruction has necessarily focused on improper conduct by accounting professionals. While it is imperative to learn from these cases, it is also important to focus on accounting as a profession that serves the public interest and the ethical conduct that forms the foundation of this critical vocation. In the vast majority of cases, accountants make the correct choice and live up to the high ethical standards of the profession. “Ethical Leaders in Accounting” (Patrick Kelly and Christine E. Earley, Advances in Accounting Education, August 2011, http://bit.ly/2knyJXo) provides examples of accounting professionals, regulators, and others who have made ethical decisions under various challenging circumstances.

Both the Coast Guard and the accounting profession attract talented people who want to be successful.

There are many ways to reinforce ethics in accounting education programs. Some have employed an “ethics-across-the-curriculum” approach, in which ethical topics are addressed in most if not all accounting courses. Others advocate for a required accounting ethics course that focuses on the many different aspects of values and ethics in an accounting context (Cindy Blanthorne, Stacy E. Kovar, and Dann G. Fisher, “Accounting Educators’ Opinions about Ethics in the Curriculum: An Extensive View,” Issues in Accounting Education, August 2007, http://bit.ly/2knAL9J). One advantage of the latter approach is the possibility to include many of the leadership topics addressed earlier in this article.

A Need for Leadership

The accounting profession has an ongoing need for ethical leaders, particularly given its responsibility to serve the public interest. Increased oversight and accountability, along with client pressures, provide additional leadership and organizational challenges not experienced by prior generations of accountants. Since students enter college with a varied set of personal values, it is vital that they develop as ethical leaders who will successfully serve the profession in the future. A cooperative effort between accounting educators and practitioners can facilitate this process and benefit students.

It is important that accounting educators and practitioners provide consistent messages to students as they prepare to serve as future leaders of this vital vocation. Although the Coast Guard has a more structured program for developing leaders of character, the accounting profession and educators can learn from some of its approaches. This includes highlighting professional values and standards of conduct, fostering leadership skills in directing and developing others, and emphasizing ethical decision making, teamwork, followership, and self-assessment skills.

Both the Coast Guard and the accounting profession attract talented people who want to be successful. They are smart, committed individuals who are willing to work hard to succeed and who come to learn the importance of the ethical decisions they will make as professionals. While the demands on both professions have increased in recent years and are expected to continue to do so, enhanced cooperation and coordination between educators and practitioners will help students develop into ethical leaders.

Patrick Kelly, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Accountancy at the Providence College School of Business, Providence, R.I.