The Manager’s Oath & Professional Ethics

After the meltdown and a spate of scams in the corporate world, there is an increasing recognition of the need for an ethical foundation for business. There are many discussions and debates within and among the academics and professionals in business and management on how to achieve this ethical elevation of the managerial profession. One of the initiatives which have emerged out of this discussion is an attempt to formulate a Code of Conduct for the manager, called as the “MBA Oath” with strong ethical overtones. Like the Hypocritic Oath for Doctors, this MBA Oath may be considered as the oath for Managers. If this Oath gets institutionalized fully on a widespread scale in management education it would be an important and positive milestone in the evolution of management profession. The other important feature of this oath is that it provides a broad framework of ethical guideline not only for managers but also for all professionals. This article presents a deeper perspective on the oath and its implementation in the corporate world.

Key Perspectives

MBA oath: a brief historical review; ethical imperatives of the new age executive; building the ethical consciousness.

The MBA Oath: A Brief Historical Review

The MBA Oath is the result of two separate events. First is a study conducted by the students of Harvard Business School (HBS) on the occasion of 100th anniversary of its founding as the world’s first two-year masters programme in management education. As a part of this centennial celebration, HBS faculty led students in case discussions on the “future of the MBA.” HBS students reflected on the first 100 years of management education and how it might change in the coming years. The need for a professional Code of Conduct for managers were discussed and debated by HBS students.

The second factor is a critical review of the present condition of management education by leading management scholars. A number of articles appeared in leading management journals including Harvard Business Review blaming the MBA curriculum for its lack of an ethical perspective. For example, Joel M. Pondy, former dean of Yale School of Management, in an article in Harvard Business Review on the present condition of Management education, states:

“I am angry about the inattention to ethics and value based leadership in business schools… in order to reduce distrust business schools need to teach that principles, ethics and attention to detail are essential components of leadership.”

One of the results of these two developments is an initiative driven by a coalition of MBA students, graduates and advisors, including nearly 2000 students and alumni, formulating a written oath and creating forums for individuals to personally commit to an ethical standard. In short, the “MBA Oath” is an initial, grassroot attempt to restore ethics and standards in the field of management.

The Ethical Imperatives of the New Age Executive

Oaths and codes are not something new but as old as human civilization. There are numberless oaths. For example the medical students all over the world take the hypocritic oath. Some of the business schools ask their students to take an oath. For example, the Oath of Columbia Business School reads as follows:

“As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

Similarly there are thousands of ethical codes. Many professional engineering associations have ethical codes, with an emphasis on public welfare. However, for a student and practitioner of management, the MBA Oath has a deep significance because of its two unique features: first, it provides some clear ethical guidelines for the new age manager based on a holistic vision of business, expressed in terms of the traditional as well as emerging values in modern business. Secondly, it articulates with clarity the ethical imperative facing the new age executive and professional.

The MBA Oath begins with a following passage which expresses a clear understanding that business is a part of society and therefore its decisions and action have consequences for the well-being of the society as a whole:

“As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing together people and resources to create value that no single individual can build alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize that my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face difficult choices.”

The rest of the oath is stated as consequences in terms of responsibilities and choices facing the manager. The Oath goes on to say:

“Therefore I promise:

I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
I will take responsibility for my actions, and will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honour.”

We can see in the oath the traditional corporate goal like shareholder value and economic prosperity as well as emerging ideals like stakeholder value, societal well-being, environmental responsibility, human development, ethics and integrity. There is also a clear articulation of some of the ethical imperatives facing the modern manager like for example the need for honesty and transparency in dealing with the stakeholders. And most importantly, the oath recognizes that a manager or leader has to put the well-being of the society above his narrow personal ambitions. This is a crucial factor in building an authentic ethical consciousness and also for holistic decision-making.

Building the Ethical Consciousness

However merely having an oath is not enough. We need a system of education, training or discipline for internalizing the oath in our consciousness. In other words building a strong ethical consciousness is the basis of authentic ethical behaviour.

In an integral perspective every human conduct or activity, especially the ethical or value-laden activities have two aspects: inner consciousness and outer behaviour. If the outer behaviour or conduct has to be authentic and effective, it has to be a spontaneous expression of a corresponding inner state or condition in the consciousness of people. For example the generosity in outer behaviour has to be a spontaneous expression of generosity in feelings.

How to build this ethical consciousness? Mental education through concepts, examples and case studies are helpful but not sufficient, because it doesn’t lead to any lasting ethical transformation. Such a deep transformation requires an inner discipline based on following principles and practices.

  •  Self-knowledge, self-governance and self-transformation.
  • Progressive purification of the mind and heart from compulsive slavery to ego, desire, attachment and other negativities like greed, violence, jealousy.
  • In decision-making, long-term well-being of people and the larger society as a whole must be placed above the personal ambitions of the leader or the short-term goals of the organization.
  •  Development of holistic thinking and intuition which can perceive each part as part of a larger whole and understand the nature of the consequences of our actions or decisions for the well-being of the larger whole.
  • Constant and vigilant self-observation or mindfulness which is very much necessary to become fully conscious of what we are made of, detect and reject all contradictions and self-deceptions within us and unify our being around our central ideal, principle or value which we want to realize.
  • Conscious cultivation of higher values which lead to peace and harmony within us and with the surrounding environment like kindness, generosity, compassion, service, tolerance, understanding, non-judgemental attitude, patience, forgiveness.
  • Practice of peace and equanimity under all circumstances. For someone who is peaceful and calm is less likely to fall a prey to unethical impulses.
  • Practice of stepping back and witness-consciousness. Learning to step-back and watch as a detached witness all our thoughts, feelings and impulses and to discriminate between the right and wrong movement.
  • Developing the capacity for introversion by which we can enter deep into our inner being and come into direct contact with our divine self. For only, in the consciousness of our spiritual self beyond our body and mind, the higher values become entirely concrete, spontaneous, experiential and intrinsic.

If we want to build a lasting and stable ethical foundation in the corporate world, this discipline which we have described above has to become an integral part of education, training and development programmes for corporate leaders, managers, professionals, employees and students.

M.S. Srinivasan & O.P. Dani

Mr. Srinivasan is a Research Associate at Sri Aurobindo Society and on the editorial board of Fourth Dimension Inc. His major areas of interest are Management and Indian Culture.

Mr. Dani is a Fellow Member of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and Past President of The Institute of Company Secretaries of India & Member of the Executive Committee of Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry.

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