[Adapted from a talk I gave to the New England Board of Higher Education in 2010.]
Oaths & Trust: What do you believe in?
In 2001, after the tech bust, I was at a meeting of the Northern Virginia Tech Council. People were glum. An entrepreneur said: “Six months ago, if I had gone to a potential investor and said, I’m over 40, my company’s been in business for ten years, and every year sales have grown by 10-15%, I would have been laughed out of the room. Today, when I say, I’m over 40, we’ve been in business for ten years, and every year sales have grown by 10-15%, they say, ‘How much do you want?’
By 2003, investors might have swung to the former attitude of scorn. Today, you would be more likely to hear the latter again. Business performance and managerial skill, in the conventional sense, can look good or bad, depending on one’s vantage point, and one’s vantage point has a lot to do with how fast those around you are getting richer or poorer, especially if it’s through little effort of their own. Fear and greed!
Attitudes change as conditions change. Many of us become highly motivated by the possibility of short-term gains or losses.
What is the purpose of graduate business education? Is it about preparing practitioners to accelerate their careers with the upswings, reign triumphant at the peaks, dodge the falling masonry during the downturns, and cope during the slumps? To privatize the gains and socialize the losses?
Despite some exceptional persons and programs, conventional business education is dominated by opportunism and the short-term. It invokes justifications with moral overtones: rational markets, creative destruction, the Invisible Hand.
In this view, market actors and asset managers must be focused on the profitable exploitation of usually short-term opportunities. Maximization of shareholder value in high-velocity markets has increasingly been the sole focus of managerial expertise in recent decades.
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good, “ said Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street (the year I started my MBA):
Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms–greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge–has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed–you mark my words–will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Has the most recent cycle of fear and greed affected the culture of MBA programs, source of the new lifeblood of so many larger corporations? Are they ready to embrace sustainability – the possibility that life for humans and other living things can flourish on Earth forever?
The business school students have started swearing a morality oath. Thunderbird students launched one in 2006. Harvard Business School MBA students launched one year ago. As of a moment ago, 6406 MBA students from around the world had sworn. Here’s an excerpt:
• I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.
• I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.
• I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.
• I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity
This oath I make freely, and upon my honor
Well, it’s about time.
If the business schools will not transform themselves to truly embody these principles, at least the students can simply choose to live them.
“Just do the right thing.”
Although, how can the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity? Doesn’t it need to start, first?
Anyway, what use is an oath?
…[B]ut do not stain the even virtue of our enterprise, nor th’insuppressive mettle of our spirits, to think that – or our cause – or our performance – did need an oath.
But let’s assume it will make some difference.
Are the new sustainability-oriented and “green” MBA programs we’re now seeing across the country redundant, now that high-octane MBA grads are repentant, swearing oaths?
Many of these innovative programs are start-ups, newcomers to business education, without the history, corporate support, heavy research capacity, or powerful brand names:
- Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s MBA in Sustainable Enterprise
- Presidio Graduate School’s MBA in Sustainable Management
- Dominican University’s Green MBA
- Antioch University New England’s Green MBA
- The Brandeis Global Green MBA
- Clark University’s MBA in Social Change
These are some of the attempts to fundamentally redesign and re-orient MBA education that have emerged since 2002, when pioneer Bainbridge was founded.
There is understandably skepticism about what we stand for, or at least, about our claims to be engaged in a distinct form of graduate management education. (Skepticism is healthy, to be sure! Having just marveled openly about the MBA Student Oath, am I mistaken in thinking that the claims of the “green” MBA programs are any more genuine?)
Ask: Whom do you trust most?
I trust what I have seen of the open, questioning intentionality of our kind of MBA program.
I trust the deep commitment to building authentic, inclusive, caring community, and to always being present as a whole individual.
I trust the turning away from impersonal, objectifying, manipulative corporate behavior, and toward the socially responsible businesses and social enterprises where the lessons are about health, about aligning with right values, and about honoring the dignity of all human beings.
I trust the interest in replacing extractive, exploitive industries with regeneration and resilience.
I trust the faith in the genius of place, and of the enthusiasm for local businesses and the relocalization of economies.
I trust the questioning of unconstrained corporate personhood, and the interest in for example beneficial corporations, employee ownership, and co-ops.
I trust the skepticism of hyperinstitutionalized academia, of the dominance of disciplines, of the rarified culture of academic publication.
I trust learning that thoroughly exercises the more immediate, practical skills of business while giving the momentous facts of our times the attention they deserve:
- climate change,
- peaking fossil fuel supplies
- human domination of the biosphere
- the crisis of our health and in our health care system
- the corruption among elected officials
- the concentration of wealth
- the erosion of the middle class
- our uncertain democracy.
I trust the hunger for deep ecological literacy and systems wisdom.
I trust the strong desire to learn from Nature as mentor.
I trust the absence of oaths. (Thank God that the General Assemblies have not yet introduced an “Occupation Oath” that all occupationists must swear! Hope that’s not coming down the pike…)
If we are not managing for sustainability, then what are we managing for? Less unsustainability? Opportunistic gains? Domination? A share of what’s left?