2274692As I have historically indicated in this space, numerous examples can be cited displaying the wrestling match of sorts that academic, professional, and even executive institutions have in their efforts to successfully present or teach business ethics.  These range from WSJ articles lamenting that even Harvard struggles with this, to the point where an Ivy or two have admitted they have certainly produced really smart people, but some had become “experts in exploiting loopholes,” resulting in bad things.

To delve just a bit deeper…as an additional business challenge (if not academic as well), IF we were to find a better approach, what more favorable results would we SEE from an effective shift?  Said another way, how might these institutions change, how might we define success and then what real and better results would occur?  The following metrics don’t really “hack” it, but:

  • Would Business/Academics jointly bringing experiential lessons-learned to the classroom hasten the “improvement”?
  • Would fewer fraud schemes result, be uncovered quicker at lower-dollar-instances? (“Not So Far” says the ACFE’s latest Report to the Nations…)
  • More profit margin? More capital?  A more robust and growing economy?
  • Fewer white-collar criminals?  Less government corruption or over-reach?
  • Honesty and transparency?
  • Readily-available and public testimonials about or from good guys?
  • Fewer perps on the podium?
  • Principles-based management obviating the need for more rules and regulations?

Unfortunately, it might be easier to editorialize upon what business ethics approach apparently isn’t likely to work in the classroom, or perhaps more meaningful…what has been proven to NOT work—either in the classroom or subsequently in reality, based upon marketplace examples the wrong way.  I would prefer to stay positive, but as you can see, some “really smart” institutional people have struggled with it, and now admit to such.  But maybe admitting what doesn’t work would at least start eliminating future attempts at “doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

I just experienced another one, from the podium.

Recently I had an opportunity to add some business experiences and value to the academic side of things, although in retrospect, the environment and approach were not conducive to ensure success, in my opinion.  A major university MBA program asked me to bid on doing a “guest” Business Ethics lecture to their 1st-year batch of graduate students, and I ended up getting the gig.  One action taken in moving to their new environment for the graduate Biz school was to take what used to be two full-semester graduate courses…and consolidate them into…a one-week intensive.  One of the foregone classes was…you guessed it…Business Ethics.

To counteract this new approach, and to optimize my time at the podium, I focused on one thing, how many ethical decision-points are encountered within business experiences, in the real world.  Furthermore, my primary goal was to connect ethical principles into the behavior of BOTH the good guys and the bad (and there are clearly more good than bad).  Finally, after going through EXAMPLES, I pointed to the originator of the ethical principles, the learning, and the well-known practitioners from “both sides.”  You know, people like Plato, Aristotle, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela…and from the other perspective, some of the fraudsters and their choices.

I am certain of one thing…I did not compensate for a full semester of business ethics: readings, discussions, cases, assignments.  But paraphrasing from the words of General Honore of Katrina fame, I also realized that neither is “fixing stupid” (choices) on my resume, nor is mind-reading.

Ultimately, the real answer here is that ethics is a part of leadership, and that is where (in my opinion) academics “miss the mark.”  Quit treating “ethics” as an add-on.  It is an intrinsic and CORE element of character and leadership.

But, can you really learn leadership in school, or do you “learn” by…example?