Buffet's Failure of Leadership
Nothing Normal About AIG's "Normalized" Earnings

Business Schools Failing to Teach Ethical Leadership

Leaders Are Made Rather Than Born

Today our colleges and universities are failing to instill the skills needed to reverse the trend of the past twenty years whereby U.S. businesses routinely have placed their self-interests ahead of the interests of society. Corporate “leaders” think only in the short-term while ignoring the long-term effects of their actions. The result has been Enron, WorldCom, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Bernie Madoff and a host of unethical actions by self-serving corporations, investment banks and other financial institutions that have caused real pain and destroyed massive amounts of personal wealth. The failure of leadership has become, quite frankly, endemic to our society.

Warren Bennis, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership Studies, once said: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

So what makes for a good leader? It starts with an ability to articulate a vision that others buy into. Then, a series of guiding principles should be developed that encourages people to take action consistent with that vision. Most people want to work for an organization that makes a product that somehow improves one’s life or provides a useful service. A good example is renewable energy sources that promote sustainability. The world has a limited amount of natural resources that are being heavily taxed by rapid economic development in countries such as China and India, two countries that comprise more than one-third of the world population.

What does this have to do with college curricula? Simply this, they are remarkably outdated. Business schools focus too much attention on teaching technical skills and not enough on developing leaders who will act in a responsible, ethical manner. We need to teach the communication, interpersonal, leadership and ethical reasoning skills that are critical to a service-oriented economy such as we have in the U.S. College graduates have to learn to think critically, act decisively, and engage in intercultural communication. Typically, business schools rely on case studies to teach these skills. The problem is a case study does not engage a student on a personal level. Instead, the student is detached from the decision making and oblivious to the virtues that inform responsible decision making.

Students need to be taught to internalize the values that will enable them to act with integrity and take personal responsibility for their actions. Today’s college curriculum doesn’t cut it. What’s needed is a values-based curriculum that integrates ethical decision making with leadership. Ethical leadership is imperative if we are to avoid the kind of financial meltdown of 2008 that created systemic problems of high unemployment and an anemic housing industry, and that has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots – the rich and poor.

One of the best books I’ve read on values-driven leadership is Giving Voice to Values by noted scholar, Mary Gentile. I have previously extolled the virtues of Dr. Gentile’s work (see my blog at:  http://bit.ly/hsmHRe). Mary is the Director of an innovative global curriculum for values-driven leadership development at Babson College and Senior Advisor to The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. Through their joint efforts and those of other committed academics and professionals, colleges now have the basic tools to teach what was once thought to be unteachable.                                    

I close with another quote from Warren Bennis: “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.”   

 Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, May 7, 2011