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What Does It Profit a Man to Gain an MBA?

Business schools must stress ethics, and saying 'Stop.'

November 18, 2002|Thomas K. Lindsay | Thomas K. Lindsay is provost of the University of Dallas. E-mail: lindsay@udallas.edu

It's becoming a regular feature on the news to see handcuffed executives being carted off to face criminal charges. Why, we wonder, was no one along the chain of command at Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Tyco, Arthur Andersen or any of the others able to muster the moral courage to say "Stop"?

For many, including President Bush, the cure for our ethical ills is education. Bush is right that there is much more that we in the academy can do to foster ethical leadership.

Unfortunately, however, business education in this country is devoted overwhelmingly to technical training. This is ironic, because even before Enron, studies showed that executives who fail -- financially as well as morally -- rarely do so from a lack of technical expertise. Rather, they fail because they lack interpersonal skills and practical wisdom; what Aristotle called prudence.

Aristotle taught that genuine leadership consisted in the ability to identify and serve the common good. To do so requires much more than technical training. It requires an education in moral reasoning, which must include history, philosophy, literature, theology and logic; that is, a liberal arts education.

Over the last half-century, we academics have forgotten a centuries-tested truth: A liberal arts education fosters ethical leadership as no other training can because it gives students the life-transforming exercise of engaging in conversations with history's greatest thinkers and doers.

Indeed, one thing that has distinguished those great leaders has been their ardent study of those who preceded them. Alexander the Great was a passionate student of the exploits of his role model, Homer's Achilles. In turn, Julius Caesar patterned his ambitions after those of Alexander the Great.

Among the members of the founding generation of the United States, Plutarch's "Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans" was second only to the Bible in readership. Lincoln credited the Bible, Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence as his teachers.

As a young man, Winston Churchill read and embraced Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics." This work contains the famous description of the "magnanimous man," whose vision is so grand that for him, even great honors are a "small thing." Such greatness of soul explains Churchill's moral capacity in the 1930s -- when he was out of office, discredited and ridiculed -- to stand up and rouse a slumbering world to the coming danger of Nazism.

History's great authors and leaders do not always agree on what constitutes leadership. But it is in studying the disagreements that students can gain the maturity necessary to become genuine leaders.

What is the just society? What is human excellence? What do the individual and the community owe each other? Wrestling with the greats over these questions forces students to examine and defend their own beliefs and thus develop the breadth, depth, creativity and vision to face today's complex ethical dilemmas.

These exercises find their analogy in athletics; you play just as you practice. Currently, business education compels students to spend 95% of their time learning how to calculate with a view to maximizing wealth. Just 5% of their time -- usually no more than a half-semester course -- is spent developing their moral capacities. Should we be surprised at students' priorities after they graduate?

At the University of Dallas, we have begun a business degree program that marries technical courses with the liberal arts. At the heart of this novel marriage stand the intellectual and ethical exercises I've just described. We hope the program will not remain novel for long.

Most of all, we hope that if, somewhere down the road, one of our graduates finds herself in the midst of a potential Enron, she remembers her Aristotle and cries "Stop."

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