Practicing Leadership in Corporate Accountability

Luke Hodges, Contributor

During RC year, I often wondered why in-class conversations about ethical leadership were so divorced from the rest of the HBS curriculum. Case method discussions, cropped to fit narrow topics to build a foundation of specific technical competencies, are an excellent pedagogical means for most RC topics. Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA), in my opinion, is not one of them. The LCA syllabus should be redesigned to integrate with the rest of the RC curriculum.

Several RC cases begged for deeper ethics-oriented conversation. Anglo American, Coca-Cola and industries spanning social media, oil and retailing left important topics unaddressed. Discussing an industry without addressing questionable aspects of the business model it employs, particularly at a time when social impact is so prevalent in public discourse, seems egregiously myopic.

To their great credit, some professors unambiguously address ethical dilemmas. Ben Esty opened last year’s Section D strategy class discussion of the DeBeers diamond industry case with a thoughtful acknowledgement that issues beyond the strategic lens required thoughtful consideration. Due to the demands of the syllabus however, we had to focus our 90 minutes of conversation on the topic du jour rather than on whether the diamond industry was ethically flawed in the first place.

Interestingly, every dilemma parsed by LCA is embedded elsewhere in the RC curriculum. Just as the jointly-taught Tessei case brought TOM and LEAD lessons to life, many non-LCA cases can be easily adopted as bases for LCA discussions. This is an ideal way to teach, and learn, such important principles.

A developed habit of critically assessing business practices and decisions for their ethical implications, amidst a barrage of numbers and daily distractions, is an essential skill for anyone who desires to do well by doing good. The lack of such a mindset often lands well-meaning people at the helm of projects or companies that have lost their ethical way. Prodding students to think about every HBS case in this way can build habits of critical thinking that integrate our ethical “senses” with our finance, marketing, operations and other skills and instincts.

I like to believe that our HBS colleagues are, as a rule, imperfect but good people – not on the paths of Rajat Gupta or Jeffrey Skilling. But I wonder if these men would have changed their behavior based on any course HBS could have offered. Why? Because people arrive on the wrong side of ethics and the law by many paths. Some enter and exit ethical “gray areas” unaware as they traverse the legal landscape in search of loophole portals to long-sought treasures, factoring regulatory penalties as mere elements of a risk/reward ratio. Many become less vigilant with success, forgetting to ask the right questions or confusing friendship and fraud. A few simply choose to do the wrong thing.

Mapping frameworks and reciting standards in a classroom cannot guarantee against these pitfalls, but practiced habits of conscious, continuous ethical critique may do so. LCA should not just try to scare us with the dire outcomes of failed business people, but instead heighten our alertness to ethical challenges and help us learn to notice, evaluate, communicate and stand up for what is right when the time comes.

Interestingly, the 2018 LCA syllabus was partly promises this—that it would teach us “to think in depth and in practical terms…and to use this understanding of [our] responsibilities to resolve ‘gray area’ problems in practical, effective ways.” But I have found few classmates who felt that it did. Yes, we benefited to an extent from explicit discussions of responsibilities and yes, the theory readings were informative, but we left wanting more.

I would like to see LCA draw regularly upon other cases in the RC curriculum, not because the cases it now uses are terrible (I think some are very good) but because we need to think in a more integrated way about these issues. A perfect starting point could be the Coca-Cola Company. The US Food and Drug Administration explicitly recommends avoiding sugary drinks and links high sugar consumption to numerous negative and costly health outcomes. Yet our discussions regarding Coca-Cola emphasize only its marketing tactics and duopoly competitive strategies, generally ignoring the ethical conundrum that its leading products are bad for people. This makes no sense. We should be talking about all of these things in an integrated and critical way.

LCA can be redesigned accordingly by first reviewing the catalog of active RC cases for those that beg further ethical exploration. Then develop LCA course notes and teacher guides that link the case to important concepts and principles and to encourage thoughtful examination, discussion and debate in class. Finally, conclude the course with a final (test or paper) in which students are not only challenged to exercise integrated leadership thinking, but to define how learnings from the course might apply to a future job or the industry they will be interning with that summer. I believe this strategy will better prepare students to be the kinds of “leaders who make a difference in the world” that HBS desires to produce.

I hope that future MBA classes will remember LCA as a forum where they gained the skills to evaluate, debate and persuade colleagues and supervisors to take a principled stand in ethically fraught situations. We need these skills now more than ever.

Luke Hodges (MBA ’18) is an active duty U.S. Navy Supply Officer who has been stationed abroad in Japan, Iraq and Spain. He is a father of four inquisitive and energetic kiddos and loves firing up the grill with friends any time the weather allows.