MBAs: First, Do No Harm

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on June 1, 2009

Will wonders never cease?

Just the other day, Babson (Babson Full-Time MBA Profile) announced that it was adopting the Principals for Responsible Management Education, a framework for advancing the cause of corporate social responsibility. It says, among other things, that adherents to the principals will strive to produce grads who generate “sustainable value for business and society” and create curricula that include “effective learning experiences for responsible leadership.”

Now along comes the New York Times, with the news that about 160 graduating MBAs at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) have signed a pledge to act ethically as managers and “serve the greater good.” The MBA Oath requires signers to “act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner,” and avoid “decisions that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.”

There's been a lot of finger-pointing at MBAs in recent weeks, much of it justified, some of it not. The gist of it goes something like this: if business schools weren't so gosh darn intent on filling impressionable young MBAs with a lot of claptrap about maximizing shareholder value, a lot of the big stupid bets that led to the current financial crisis never would have been made.

Would it have helped if, 35 years ago, Richard Fuld was asked to sign a voluntary pledge to do no harm as he was graduating from NYU? I don't think so. By the time Fuld and others of his ilk got powerful enough to destroy the economy, the pledge would have been long forgotten--the fine sentiments long ago overruled by the day-to-day reality of angry shareholders, complacent boards, and pay packages that encourage the kind of damn-the-torpedo risks that ultimately sank his ship.

That fact is the 20% of Harvard's graduating class who signed the pledge will graduate into a world dominated by the 80% who didn't. I applaud the effort, but it's going to take a lot more than an oath to fix this problem.

Reader Comments

BW Editor Louis Lavelle

June 2, 2009 2:19 PM

The Times reported that 160 HBS students signed the pledge, but the Harvard Crimson is reporting that the number is more than 335. Here's the link to the Crimson article: http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=528381

KH

June 3, 2009 1:39 PM

As a Thunderbird student, I am happy to see that other schools are following in our footsteps.

I also think the media found a scapegoat in MBA's in general. I think that the disconnect is not only that not everyone who was involved for this fiasco was not an MBA, but to blame a degree for the actions of people is irresponsible journalism. Perhaps I should make a generalization about the sad state of journalism degrees? There are people who have gone bad, and it has little to do with their education other than it was one credential on a resume of experiences for getting the job that could empower them to do so much harm. I blame the individual for their actions. A novel concept these days...

M Boon

June 11, 2009 2:07 AM

The 80% who didn't sign will probably keep the upper hand, be it in politics, the economy or roughly any field that implies a high degree of competition.
A quick look at Wikipedia reminds us that the greedy, the powerful, the cruel have ruled for most our history. An oath (how futile is an oath) is not going to change that.

Rather than superimpose oaths, regulation and pledges based on an obsolete view on human motivations, it would be far more interesting to try to understand why greed and "unethical" behavior exist in the first place and what we can do about it.

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