The Moral Leader - Harvard Business School MBA Program

The Moral Leader

Course Number 1562

Professor Joseph L. Badaracco
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
13 weekly 2-hour seminar sessions
Enrollment: Limited to 40 students per section


Leaders of groups and organizations face moral decisions throughout their careers. These may entail operational issues where the boundary between right and wrong is blurry, changing, or hotly debated. They may involve the moral propriety of an enterprise or undertaking. Often the hardest cases are those where conflicting obligations, all legitimate, are at stake.

This course looks to the arts - principally novels, plays, and biography, but also visual media - to illuminate how such issues may be responsibly understood and managed. Dr. Robert Coles, of the Harvard School of Education, launched the initial version of this course almost 30 years ago. He observed that: "Novels and stories are renderings life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers - offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we may make soundings."When such works are read and analyzed in class, students and teachers alike learn from one another's perspectives.

Educational Objectives

The aim of the course is to enable students to craft a personal definition of moral leadership that they can apply in their professional, community, and family lives. Students thus develop:

  • Moral Challenge, in which students explore a variety of moral problems and various strategies used to meet them;
  • A deeper appreciation of the power (and limitations) of various moral frameworks; and
  • A richer understanding of social, contextual, and personal circumstances that affect how moral issues are perceived and resolved.

Course Content and Organization:

Readings are drawn from around the globe and span many centuries, from ancient Greece through the early Renaissance up to contemporary times. The course is comprised of three modules:

  • A heightened awareness of emerging moral challenges so that timely and wise decisions can be made;
  • Moral Reasoning, in which students are introduced to principles and modes of analysis that help justify (or discredit) decisions made in complex situations.
  • Moral Leadership, which builds on the first two modules by providing students with examples from business and the public sphere where prominent figures confronted difficult moral choices.

A concluding session enables students to connect that to their course papers. The session also introduces students to recent psychological and philosophical work on moral decision making.

Format, Requirements, and Grading

The course meets in the afternoon block for a full two hours. Enrollment is limited to 40 students in order to foster deep discussion and wide participation.

The course usually meets only once a week. At four different times during the term, however, there will be a second session. In three instances the additional session will be devoted to analyzing a dramatic or documentary film. The fourth will be devoted to a workshop in which students critique visual art in order to sharpen their perception and deepen their self-awareness.