Integrity Matters
May 28, 2003

Business schools earn failing grade on ethics

Question: (E-048)

Dear Jim:

On May 20, The New York Times writes that according to a survey of students, ethics is lacking in the business school curriculum. If the business schools of our country are not bringing this subject to the attention of future leaders in effective ways, how much at risk is the free-market system and its leadership?


Free markets are at no greater risk simply because business schools are not adequately teaching ethics in their classrooms. With or without the support of business schools, intelligent and motivated participants in free markets will respond to the expectations and demands of customers. The buying public is fed up with manipulations and lies. Perceptive business leaders will not ignore these important economic signals and expect to retain viability and neither will forward-looking business professors who need to attract talented and thoughtful students.

One of my mentors reminded me that we learn about things from books and about people from other people. We can be taught from a textbook about science, engineering, transportation and a host of other enterprises and activities. However; leadership, values, integrity-centered behavior, relationships and service – these are communicated and taught by those who exhibit them, person to person.

With reference to exhibiting integrity in leadership, and the origins of these values, there are scholars in the study of human behavior who suggest that fundamentals of character habits are well established before an individual is 5 years old. What this means is that our graduate business schools are quite late in the lives of their students in being able to provide much dramatic change, for the better or worse.

However, if the premise is accurate that one learns values from others and not textbooks (namely, from those engaged in the management of institutions,) then professors of business and management can do little more than cite important and provocative examples, unless they happen to be actively engaged in leading an enterprise themselves. There comes a time in education when case studies need to be fortified (if not replaced) by face-to-face interaction with active integrity-centered leaders who can demonstrate appropriate behavior and the ramifications for both hitting and missing the mark. Creating a give-and-take academic environment, with educators seeking input from entrepreneurs, can enhance educational impact and restore the ethical to the practical. Business leaders need business instructors.

Successful learning generally happens best when need meets preparedness in the context of relationship and credibility. Few traditional classrooms can rally all four dimensions at the same time.

Yet, when a motivated student asks important questions of a trusted and experienced individual, life-changing events are likely to unfold. When students, representing the future leadership of our society, encounter those whose lives and livelihood are successfully created by their own leadership of free markets, then we have an opportunity to strengthen values, in business and beyond.

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