Building Ethical Leaders |

Building Ethical Leaders


Updated June 16, 2020 Updated June 16, 2020

Business has changed and therefore business schools too must change. It is a highly interconnected world that we live in, with cross-country interactions at level few could have imagined even as recently as the turn of the century. The complexity of doing business has multiplied and today every decision has far-reaching implications that must be carefully thought through. Focus solely on the short-term, and one risks neglecting to take potential long-term consequences into account. 

This is why it is imperative that business schools focus on compassion (seeing things from another’s point of view), mindfulness (being fully aware and present) and business ethics (doing the right thing).   

 It is reassuring to note that some of the world’s best schools have introduced programs that focus on developing ethical leaders as much as competent ones. Without strength of character, competence alone cannot build greatness.

Compassion and leadership

Ethical leaders appreciate that the world is interdependent. They cannot ignore a significant part of their society or country – it will only lead to imbalance. They must have the ability to carry along their fellow citizens and the empathy to understand each stakeholder’s unique perspective. As industry leaders, they must appreciate the conditions of the homes that their workers return to after a 12-hour shift. As salespeople they must understand the needs of their rural clientele and how these can be fulfilled. As team members they should empathize with each other for mutual success. For all this, they need to understand the art of compassion. Compassion for us means the ability to understand a situation from someone else’s perspective and take action towards change based on this as well as one’s one own.

One way to develop your compassion is by volunteering with nonprofit organizations and bringing about change in challenging scenarios, taking responsibility without authority. Nonprofits and quasi-governmental bodies welcome bright minds who can work with them to make innovative marketing plans, analyze spending and help with HR policies.

This is now an integral part of curriculum across some of the word’s leading business schools. Kellogg, for example, has a special program where every student is part of a nonprofit board. Stanford sends its students to developing nations to work with communities and develop solutions that make work easier and lives better. This interaction impacts the communities involved and also leaves a significant imprint on young leaders who have accustomed to a completely different world. Short-term projects and year-long volunteering are both effective in making students more compassionate (and ethical) leaders for life.

Mindfulness in action

Apart from compassion, organizations as well as individuals are now also looking for meaning – more than ever before. Nations and businesses have started talking about ‘gross national happiness’. They are focusing on building workplaces that people are happy being part of. To be happy is to be in the present moment – to be mindful. This mindfulness can be instilled through the powerful practice of yoga and pranayama. This daily practice roots and grounds you – preparing you for the rigor of leadership after school.

Several business schools have incorporated the practice of meditation into their every day routine. Many others are calling this practice mindfulness and incorporating it in various forms in their curriculum. Mindfulness can also be taught through practices such as a sharing circle where all stakeholders join hands for a minute and say a prayer and then share different learning or experiences with each other. This is a powerful way of healing, increasing awareness and learning to be in the present moment at least for some time during the day.

Business ethics and decision making

Finally, long-term success is possible only when leaders are ethical about the choices they make. Most senior leaders will come to crossroads and ethical dilemmas will color every journey. In today’s complex workplace it is important to teach students exactly what constitutes a white-collar crime, and how far reaching the repercussions of seemingly innocuous acts could be. Business ethics cannot be ‘taught’ per se, but the factors influencing decision making and self leadership definitely can be part of the learning experience.

Today theatre experts are joining hands with leadership schools to help students appreciate the difficulty that real world ethical dilemmas can pose. This allows students to gain a better understanding of themselves which they can then apply to real-world situations when they come their way. An innovative example is GVV (giving voice to values) – developed by Babson in partnership with Yale and Aspen. As the name suggests, it concerns speaking up for what you know is right. It is delivered through a combination of case studies, discussions, coaching and role play.

Case studies are also being used as part of courses such as governance, corporate policy, and business ethics as a starting point for discussion. Students come to appreciate that there are varied points of view and learn to work with an open mind. These discussions also give participants a platform to talk about their own value system.

These skills of compassion, mindfulness and business ethics are what make leaders inspiring – in addition to which said leaders can take pleasure in their own heightened compassion, self awareness and understanding of grey areas of decision making in an ethical context.

Gandhi said in 1930, “There is not a single virtue which aims at, or is content with, the welfare of the individual alone. Conversely, there is not a single moral offence, which does not affect many others besides the offender. Hence, whether an individual is good or bad is not merely his own concern but really the concern of the whole community, nay, of the whole world.”

If future leaders study carefully and adopt principles of compassion, mindfulness and ethical practice, the entire ecosystem will be revitalized and we will all accomplish more than we could have thought possible.


This article was originally published in July 2015 . It was last updated in June 2020

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