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“True professions have codes of conduct,” wrote Harvard Business School professors Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article. At the end of Class Day exercises last Wednesday, approximately half of the 886 graduating HBS students took the professors up on their suggestion and signed a managerial version of the Hippocratic oath, pledging to manage the companies they work for in a way that safeguards not just the interests of stakeholders, but of fellow employees, customers, and the larger society in which they function.
Max Anderson, a George Leadership Fellow completing his final year in joint-degree program at HBS and the Kennedy School, spearheaded the effort to craft and build support for the MBA oath. When a colleague responded enthusiastically to his idea of creating an MBA oath for HBS, Anderson began to research similar oaths already in use at other business schools such as Columbia and Thunderbird. He and 32 other graduating joint-degree and MBA students worked together to create a pledge that “takes the best from these other oaths and adds our own flavor,” Anderson said.
“Once the project was up and running, I spoke about it at the end-of-year dinner for the George Fellows,” Anderson continued. “Seventeen of this year’s George Fellows eventually signed on, and many of them played key roles in promoting support for the oath. Without question, our involvement in the joint-degree program with HKS and the George Fellowship gave this idea real momentum. I think we saw it as a natural extension of the co-curricular conversations we’ve had this year.”
Brian Elliot and Maura Sullivan, two other George Fellows who were instrumental in garnering support for the oath, concurred. “All of the George Fellowship activities this year have been centered around authentic leadership, so creating the oath was a perfect capstone to what we’ve learned through the program,” said Elliot. “I think we all had a common desire to lead for the good of society when we began our George Fellowship year,” said Sullivan. “Our time at the Center for Public Leadership really helped crystallize our understanding that business leadership involves much more than the bottom line.”
The George Leadership Fellows program, established through a foundation started by HBS professor and former chairman of Medtronic Bill George and his wife Penny, annually selects 20 joint MBA-MPP students in the final year of their degree work. The George Fellows’ monthly program, designed by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, includes discussions with senior executives from the public and private sectors about ethical leadership and multi-sector careers.
Among the specific promises included in the HBS oath are the pledges to represent the performance and risks of the business accurately and honestly and to hold oneself and one’s colleagues mutually accountable for living by the oath. Interestingly, noted Brian Elliot, another George Fellow who has accepted a job at the social enterprise Endeavor, the oath makes no mention of any particular sector whatsoever. “Rather, people who take the oath are committing themselves to make ethical decisions in whichever sector they find themselves.”
“MBAs definitely need to rebrand themselves,” said Anderson, citing recent polls documenting how far the public’s trust in business managers has fallen. “But the oath is about more than changing perceptions. It’s about changing behavior and changing the business culture from ‘looking out for Number 1’ to recognizing that we’re all in this together.”
Sullivan, who will begin working in PepsiCo’s leadership development program this fall, noted that her new employer is “an $80 billion company that affects the lives of numerous people and communities. Why shouldn’t that responsibility be taken as seriously as the Hippocratic Oath a doctor takes? Figuring out how far that responsibility goes or what specifically it entails is rarely a black-and-white issue. But business leaders need to let the public know that they’re committed to managing those tensions to the best of their ability.
“It’s not legally binding, but the symbolism of the oath is important,” added Sullivan, a captain in the Marine Corps. “In the military, every time you’re promoted, you take a new oath—in front of other people who will help hold you accountable. The real power of the oath is not in the moment but in all the decisions you take afterward."
At press time, 751 MBAs from Harvard and elsewhere had signed the oath.
As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together 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 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.
Therefore, I promise:
This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.