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Ten years on, HBS students revive the push for an MBA Oath

By: Evan Kornbluh 04 May 2018

This article originally appeared in The Harbus on May 4, 2018.

Evan Kornbluh (HBS ’18, HKS ‘18), Kristen Gendron (HBS ’18), and Peter Hill (HBS ’18) have formed an initiative to revive an MBA Oath among HBS students – an Oath that was originated nearly ten years ago by the graduating Class of 2009. Below, they share their thoughts on the significance and urgency of an Oath for business leaders today.

This year’s graduating MBA class will re-enter the work force ten years after the onset of the greatest economic recession in a generation. While the stock market has since recovered, business leaders today face an increasingly complex web of ethical and legal challenges amidst a rising level of public scrutiny of their actions. As members of the MBA class of 2018 preparing to enter this world of uncertainty, we are reviving an effort launched by alumni who graduated into the depths of the financial crisis: to recruit our classmates to take an MBA Oath pledging to lead socially responsible and ethical careers. 

In the spring of 2009, a group of graduating MBAs adopted the work of HBS professor (and current dean) Nitin Nohria into a formal commitment to create value responsibly and ethically. If legal and medical professionals commit to a shared code of behavior, they argued, shouldn’t professional managers hold themselves to an equivalent standard? More than half of the graduating class of 2009 took the Oath, and after receiving national press coverage, the movement spread to business schools around the world. 

The MBA Oath posits this core premise for HBS graduates: “as a business leader I recognize my role in society [and] will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions.” It makes no clear assumptions about the political ideology of its participants nor does it prescribe particular management practices. It does, however, make explicit an undeniable reality: that business decisions profoundly impact a wide range of stakeholders, and that responsible and effective managers factor that reality into managerial decisions.

More than half of the graduating MBA class of 2009 took the MBA Oath. In the intervening years, annual participation has fallen. Indeed, as markets have recovered, the need to re-examine the role of business leaders in society may have felt less urgent. 

While our MBA class will enter a healthier economy than our predecessors, we believe the challenges our generation will face make it more important than ever to closely examine our role as business leaders. Today’s business leaders face unprecedented levels of scrutiny for their actions. Research by the PR firm Edelman has shown that public trust in business has fallen dramatically alongside trust in other institutions. A growing majority of people believe businesses have a responsibility to account for the consequences of their decisions beyond profitability, including consumer health and environmental impact. 

We believe all of this equates to an opportunity for our class to re-examine the question of what role business leaders should play in society. As the founders of the MBA Oath argued, US schools award more than twice as many MBA degrees as the number of law and medical degrees combined. MBA graduates, and HBS graduates in particular, command a tremendous share of the country’s (indeed the world’s) economic and political resources. Given that tremendous power, what type of responsibilities will we hold for our employees, customers, and other constituents? What commitment do we owe these groups as we accept positions of leadership? 

At the moment, the oath is a voluntary, opt-in grassroots initiative. Its simple tenets are applicable across any sector, from financial services to social enterprise. Perhaps one day an independent oversight body will hold MBA graduates accountable to a shared ethical standard, like in the legal and medical professions. However, as a start, we hope that the Oath will simply spark a conversation among our classmates about what their role as business leaders in society should be. We hope that, after having this conversation in their last month on campus, they continue to hold one another accountable as they begin to navigate their careers.

Our two years at HBS have equipped us with tools to become more effective as leaders and as managers. We call upon our classmates to use this time to also reflect on what kind of managers we want to be – and what type of change we can achieve in the world with the tools we have acquired at HBS.