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 60 students per section

Professor of Management Practice Sandra J. Sucher
Spring; Q3Q4; 3 credits
13 weekly 2-hour seminar sessions
Enrollment: Limited to 60 students per section

Fall Overview

This course uses works of literature, primarily novels, in place of case studies. Its aim, as a former student put it, is to show "how people develop the skills, courage, and perseverance to use power, money, and influence in constructive ways."

The course readings for this course come from many countries, they include novels, short stories, plays, and excerpts from classic works of moral philosophy. The readings also span many centuries, ranging from ancient Greek plays to Shakespeare to contemporary works.

Educational Objectives

Literature provides a distinctive and important perspective on leadership. First, it offers a strong dose of realism. None of the novels in the course is a simple, inspiring tale of moral heroism or sainthood. This authenticity provides a valuable learning opportunity: it is easier to learn from people who are like most of humanity - complicated and flawed - than from a gallery of heroes and villains. Realism also reveals leaders' struggles and failures and displays the blind spots, assumptions, and behavior that can derail leaders.

In addition, fiction lets students see leaders from the inside. In real life, people in charge rarely give complete, unvarnished accounts of their thinking. In contrast, fiction lets us watch leaders reflect, worry, scheme, hesitate, commit, exult, and regret. As one former student put it, "To enter the mindset of the characters, to be them, to feel what they feel...This is the privilege of the fiction reader."

Finally, leaders have to make hard decisions, and this course draws literature and on classic works of moral philosophy to provide a practical framework for making these decisions. The course is organized around this framework. The first part focuses on accountability, the second on character, and the last on pragmatism.


The course meets in the afternoon block for two hours. Enrollment is limited to 60 students in order to foster in-depth discussion and wide participation.

Spring Overview

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 - 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.

Format, Requirements, and Grading

The course meets in the afternoon block for a full two hours. Enrollment is limited to 60 students in order to foster deep discussion and wide participation.

The Moral Leader in spring term only is considering linking the course to a research study; enrolled students will be called on to participate in short pre-and post-course online surveys and in brief interviews after the course is over and class sessions will be videotaped. The study will look for patterns of engagement and learning across the class as a whole; results will not identify the comments or participation of individual students in any way.

Prof. Sucher will share more details on Canvas.