The MBA oath: a new era of responsibility?

2009

To the more cynical among us it might look very much like a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but an "oath" launched by students at Harvard Business School urging future MBA graduates to "create value responsibly and ethically" appears to have struck a chord with our future business leaders - or some of them at least.

The MBA Oath, started by 33 second-year Harvard MBA students, set out with the aim of attracting at least 100 of the current graduating cohort to sign up. But now more than half of the class of 900 have pledged to it.

Meanwhile, students from more than 25 other business schools have also shown their solidarity for the idea, with some 40 students from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and more than 30 from Oxford University's Saïd Business School signing up along with students at New York University's Stern School of Business, among others.

So is this simply an example of over-earnest youthfulness that will be quickly forgotten out in the "real world", or a genuine desire to set a new tone for business education in the future, as well as the sort of business leaders that we have on the other side of this crisis?

Certainly, the founders of the oath have set their sights high: "We hope this will a) make a difference in the lives of the students who take the oath b) challenge other classmates to work with a higher professional standard, whether they sign the oath or not and c) create a public conversation in the press about professionalizing and improving management," they said.

"Our long-term goal is to transform the field of management into a true profession, one in which MBAs are respected for their integrity, professionalism, and leadership. We hope to see hundreds of thousands of MBAs take the MBA oath, or something like it, as a step towards realizing this vision," they added.

Steve New, vice-dean of degree programmes at Saïd Business School, argued the oath could in time turn out signal a positive change, if not of direction exactly, then certainly of emphasis.

"There is a caricature of the typical MBA student as intellectually narrow and motivated only by personal wealth; many current criticisms of business schools in the wake of the financial crisis draw on this image," he said.

"But at Saïd Business School we have consistently found our students are hungry for the big picture, and are keen to understand business in its broader social and ethical contexts."

One of the school's MBA students, Raj Tulshan, agreed: "Many of us have found this initiative to resonate with our own convictions. The point of an MBA should not just be about equipping individuals with tools for their own enrichment, but also to deepen our appreciation about the impact of our actions," he said.

It can also be seen as kin to an idea proposed last year by Harvard professors Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria for a "rigorous code of ethics" for managers.

The MBA as a qualification has, of course, come in for some stick for, as its critics see it, being partly responsible for encouraging some of the more short-sighted approaches to wealth generation and risk taking that have been at the heart of this crisis.

But it also has to be recognised that, despite many signing up, the truth is that many more have decided not to, whether because they don't know about, are too busy or simply don't care.

Yet, as BusinessWeek has recently pointed out, even if the signatures so far represent only a small percentage of business graduates globally, if it were to catch on and become in effect an MBA "kitemark" and organisations started to demand or prefer MBA graduates with ethics, those who have not take the oath could conceivably find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Oath or no oath, the future syllabus and direction of the MBA – what we want our MBAs to do, be for and how we want them to think – is likely to be one of those areas that needs to be addressed once we are through the crisis.

As BusinessWeek quoted Khurana as saying: "All things being equal, I prefer going to the surgeon who took the Hippocratic Oath versus the one who didn't."