What Can Aspiring Leaders Be Taught?
Let’s say you are left in charge of an MBA program. How would you and your students sort through the tensions in corporate life vis-à-vis society, employees, and investors? How would you build those learnings into your program and make them stick?
An overarching theme of an unusually large number of responses to the June question of "What can aspiring leaders be taught?" was that of context.
That is, the suggestion that while it may be late to teach ethics and "distinguishing right from wrong" at the undergraduate or graduate level of education for leadership, such efforts should strive to provide a context in which individuals can draw their own conclusions regarding such topics of vital importance for future leaders.
Further, courses in functional subjects such as marketing and finance can provide a more practical context in which ethical dilemmas can be resolved than can separate courses in ethics or values. Further, how ethical and value-based dilemmas are taught may be as important as the inclusion of such subjects in the curriculum.
Rene Wentworth commented that " ... business schools (and law schools, medical schools, etc.) should attempt to teach students ways to reconcile their actions when ethics seemingly compete with profit or another targeted outcome." As Ken Coleman pointed out, "business students need to understand that decisions made in a vacuum with no weight given to broader success factors which are ethical and value centered, are or certainly can be detrimental to the society they serve ...."
A more acerbic point of view was offered by Mark Anton: "The area of ethics and values is so subjective and variable to individual perception that it will have little room and limited effectiveness in the classroom. Have the students read Dilbert instead."
According to Vuks Gwele, "Ethics and values are and always will be an integral part of our lives both in business and society... For that reason it is not advisable to teach business ethics and values in isolation from the functional areas of study needed for business success." While suggesting at times that a stand-alone course in ethics and values might have some use alongside such an approach, many others echoed this point of view.
Several suggested that instructional behaviors and settings could have as great an influence as the content itself. One respondent wrote, "...values should be modeled by the instructors in how they prepare and deliver content, the time and value they give their students, and the grading philosophy." As B.V. Krishnamurthy commented, " ... many of us do not practice what we preach... Unless we are willing to be role models for a generation of young people, an easy resolution of the question posed does not seem probable." Tammy Doty suggested that physical aspects of the setting could be critical, advising that "preaching/teaching ethics doesn't work, but a scared-straight approach does. Create posters featuring the handcuffed children of lapsed ethics ... and wallpaper the classrooms."
But does the responsibility rest solely or even primarily with business schools? Can on-the-job training deal with the shaping of values and ethical behaviors just as it does with various skills needed for the job? If so, does this suggest an added dimension for business school training, i.e., the preparation of leaders who can "teach" ethics and values on the job as well as demonstrate them by their behaviors? What do you think?
Debates among business school faculties these days mirror those taking place on the business (and sometimes front) pages of our newspapers. The question: What are appropriate responses to the perceived breakdown in trust between leaders, those who work with them, those who advise them, and those who invest in their organizations?
The educational responses will take many forms. First, increased emphasis may be placed on the teaching of ethics—socially acceptable decision-making and decision-implementation behaviors—to those who will become leaders and managers confronted with alternatives that some would view as involving right and wrong, and others would view as involving a selection of the lesser of two or more wrongs. Taken to its extreme, this may involve some effort to effect moral change among those studying ethical issues.
Other approaches to instruction will place heavier emphasis on values—individual, organizational, or both. Here, more attention will be paid to the careful development of, and adherence by managers to, what in the past often have been meaningless organizational value statements. These may or may not reflect ethical values, but include preferred behaviors such as treating people with respect, exercising speed in decision-making, insuring transparency and the sharing of information, and emphasizing simplicity in ways of getting things done.
Just how these topics are to be taught will occupy a significant portion of faculty discussion and planning time as well in the coming months. Should the topics be addressed in separate courses staffed by those with substantial training in philosophy as well as management theory? Or should they be examined in courses primarily designed to address marketing, accounting, financial, human resource, and operational matters and taught by those only with strong functional backgrounds?
Of course, only a limited amount of time can be allocated in a curriculum to these topics, whether taught in stand-alone courses or as integral to all courses. Any school that cuts back on basic courses such as marketing, accounting, and the like does so at the risk of inadequately providing its graduates with the basics needed for success in the early years of their careers.
Do recent events warrant this reallocation of educational time and effort? What kind of emphasis should it have: on ethics, values, or something else? And just how should the instructional effort be carried out: in stand-alone classes, integral to all courses, or in some other manner (recognizing the shortcomings of any one approach)? What do you think?