Confronting corporate bullies, one oath at a time
Bullies have long reigned supreme on school playgrounds but their childhood rule may be ending. Research by Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus has shown a way to reduce bullying: engaging an entire school in community building. The strategy is simple enough--make everyone mutually dependent actors, build common standards, and re-educate bad apples. The positive results are documented in schools around the globe.
These playground lessons have grown-up implications for today's MBA programs. If the corporate scandaleers--the Madoffs and Rajaratnams--are bullies terrorizing the business profession, it's time the business community unites to marginalize their influence. The emergence of the MBA Oath is an important step in achieving this goal.
Begun in May 2009, the MBA Oath is a voluntary pledge for business school graduates to uphold a high standard of integrity in their careers. Over 1,800 MBA students across the globe have already signed. Those who take the Oath affirm the critical role management professionals play in creating value for society. While the Oath has many great features, what most inspires me is the idea of developing the community of business.
Most leadership studies--and this is especially true at business schools--emphasize the role of the individual: how one person helps a group achieve new goals. It is refreshing to flip this and consider the role of community in shaping leadership.
Olweus' research on bullying reveals two important interactions between communities and leadership. First, the common bonds that tie a group allow individuals to speak out against those who threaten the community. Second, complex challenges with multiple stakeholders cannot be solved without coordinated leadership. A sense of "we are in this together" is required to achieve joint gains.
One of Jeff Skilling's classmates has recalled a comment the ex-CEO of Enron made during a class about a dangerous consumer product: "I'd keep making and selling [it]. My job as a business man is to...maximize return to the shareholders. It's the government's job to step in if a product is dangerous."
As a student today at Harvard's business school, I hear echoes of those comments from my classmates. Although there has been a healthy upgrade in the school's ethics cirriculum, students and teachers are encouraged to hear other perspectives without acknowledging there is a right or wrong way to do things.
In their reverence for the individual, business schools are remarkably bad at creating a sense of common purpose beyond an ambition to make money. Without a higher calling, bad actors flourish and those who want to speak out against them have little basis on which to challenge them. The MBA Oath offers business professionals a community-affirmed standard by which to hold each other accountable.
Indeed, this community-based approach is already applied at many venerable corporations. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) uses its "Credo," the company's codified beliefs on business standards, as a critical decision-making tool. Insiders say they pay it more than lip service, as employees rely on it to govern everything from buying office supplies to handling poisoned Tylenol.
Critics of the MBA Oath point to this very ability of companies to determine their own ethics as evidence there is no need for a meddling Oath. These critics are right that every company has distinct objectives and ethics, and that this diversity is a strength. Sadly, these companies remain all-too-uncommon, and even the good guys have their share of violations. Johnson & Johnson, for example, now stands accused in federal court of taking kickbacks on drug sales.
The MBA Oath is meant to capture the one task that is common across all businesses and should thus be reflected in their ethics: Managers must organize resources and create value for society. Any business that fails to do this has a short expiry date.
The MBA Oath's capacity to create a business community is especially important in an interconnected world. Take the issue du jour--health insurance companies--as an example. Since the end of the managed-care era, insurance giants have grown profitably while their customers have been ever-squeezed. Where insurance executives should have collaborated to set a sustainable vision for health care, they instead competed for short-term scraps until government intervention was necessary.
If the goal is to keep government out of enterprise, then we need our business leaders to think purposefully about their impact on society. The MBA Oath helps establish this mindset for a future generation of leaders.
Of many valuable lessons I've learned at business school, one that sticks with me is the notion that ethics is like a muscle. Choosing to do the right thing -- or the wrong thing -- means flexing a moral muscle; the more you do good or ill, the stronger that muscle becomes, until it responds instinctively.
Every day I reach into my wallet and see my MBA Oath pledge card, and it provides a little reminder to do the right thing. If enough of my fellow business professionals do the same, we may just develop the communal strength to overpower the bullies that take the fun out of our business playground.
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