Throwing rocks from inside the hot house


By Chris Mabey

The relationship between universities and their offspring business schools has been played out over the last half century with a degree of predictability. Starting as experimental children in an untested marketplace, they then grew rapidly to become troublesome adolescents seeking their institutional identity and autonomy before finally being welcomed by their university parents as bankable adults. Progressing – if progress it is – from out-of-line calves to assembly-line cash-cows. But along the way, have business schools lost something of their original ambition and promise to make better leaders for society?

A string of high profile leadership scandals suggest something of a moral meltdown across all sectors, from phone-tapping by the national press to incipient bullying in the NHS, from institutional racism in the Met Police to fraud in the financial services and world football. The typical response by policy makers is to introduce stricter rule compliance and tighter external auditing, but the track record of regulation introduced to address poor or morally dubious leadership is not impressive. This is evident in the recent past where the effectiveness of the UK regulatory response to the 2008 banking crisis is, as yet, unknown and potentially ‘inadequate’ (Davies, 2012: 206); and recent attempts to reform the UK Health Services (Francis Inquiry Report, 2010) have largely failed to address an endemic, top-down culture of bullying. Another, less domestic example is the Global Reporting Index. Established in the late 1990s it quickly gathered momentum as a helpful reporting framework for organisations to disclose information on their sustainability performance against an externally benchmarked standard, rather than the public relying on the vagaries of self-report. Based on detailed analysis of firms subscribing to the GRI on indices like stakeholder inclusiveness, disclosures on management issues and human rights-related issues, Roper et al (2011) found endemic misreporting and poor compliance. This led the team to conclude that “All in all, this [research] suggests that motivation to disclose, overall, could be better explained by the benefits to be achieved from being seen to be doing the right thing.” (2011, p.12). This sums up the problem well. Too often compliance with external regimes fails to deal with the pernicious ethos that leads to unethical leadership and/or malpractice.

It is here that business schools, tasked with equipping the next generation of leaders, can play their part. Yet business schools frequently fail in their original mission to be capitalism’s conscience, to ask questions other institutions are afraid to ask, to promote multi-disciplinary dialogue and to deploy their finely-honed educational skills to provoke deeper self- and other-awareness. Why is this? Perhaps because business schools are locked into a collusive cycle with other stakeholders where none appear to be prepared to break ranks and confront this inertia. At worst, instrumentally-oriented students meet career-minded academics who are driven by elitist accreditation and managerialist universities to produce conservative research and tired teaching, which is readily consumed by performance-driven employers. Not exactly fertile soil for the cultivating the next generation of mould-breaking, ethically-driven entrepreneurial leaders.  

This is a systemic problem with tangled historical roots, but as an important constituency in the cycle, I believe we as faculty can help break this collusion in at least three ways.

First, by more adventurous theorising, breaking the unholy silence between competing discourses to uncover the foundations of effective leadership. For example, a brief excursion into philosophy might provoke students to question what we lose ethically when we treat ourselves and others as disembodied and de-politicized subjects. Tuning into ecological concerns might confront some of the sacred shibboleths of business schools, such as whether businesses growth is always desirable, whether leadership can ever be values-free, in what ways is modern economics morally suspect?  Or, by invoking theological lenses, a class discussion might begin to challenge the very orthodoxy of neo-liberal, capitalist organisations. Given that organisation studies touches on the very human matters of well-being and motivation in the workplace, of oppression and emancipation, of power and powerlessness, of vocational purpose and meaning, it is perhaps not surprising that a theological turn (as exemplified in a 2012 special issue of Organisation) allows scholars to develop alternative ways of seeing organisations which may transcend contemporary management theory.

Second, faculty can help business schools recover their moral authority, not by tagging an ethics module onto the MBA curriculum but by creating dialogue between disparate belief systems and world-views. If leadership stems from passion and belief about a better world, is it not ironic that a class full of international students who inhabit a range of religions can complete their studies at a western university without mention of faith or spirituality? Some business schools will venture into the territory of MacIntyre’s concept of virtue, Plato’ cave from classical Greek philosophy, the Maori notion of wairua or the literature of ancient Hebrew wisdom, but these tend to be the exceptions.  Reclaiming moral authority is not about pushing a particular brand of ideology or spirituality or even pursuing CSR credentials, but assisting students find their moral compass as they negotiate the ethical minefield of graduate employment.

Third, and following on from the first two, we as faculty can be more controversial and counter-cultural in the classroom. A course at Harvard Kennedy School deliberately uses the gestalt of uncertainty and disruption as classroom dynamics to press home leadership learning – and consistently receives top student ratings. Colleagues I know get students to visit the same case study or the same management ‘blockbuster’ through multiple and incommensurate lenses in order to encourage engagement with the very ‘humanness’ of organisations and the frailty of prescriptive texts; another was prompted by a cross-cultural fist-fight in the classroom to reconfigure a leadership module around mutual respect; and another crosses genres and hops centuries to relate the relevance of Balzac to the demise of Lehmann Brothers.

Chris Mabey

Professor of HRM at Middlesex University Business School

His ideas are discussed more fully in a book, published by SAGE this month, with contributions from a diverse range of academics from four continents.

Endorsing the topicality of this theme: the Economic and Social Research Council are funding nine seminars on Ethical Leadership. KPMG hosted the first two at their Salisbury Square HQ in Oct 2014 and SAGE Publishers are filming each one. The conversation continues at

The picture featured above belongs to Middlesex University London