The times we live in call for a solid code of leadership ethics preached and practised by all levels of business. More and more, this includes business schools and their teaching principles too.

The need for an ethically sensible approach to management is part of a larger force – one that is dictated by a new generation of students and professionals. This is a generation that has experienced financial crashes, political and economic uproar, and corporate misconduct firsthand. Environmental concerns are also taking an increasingly important part in the conversation on ethics.

We need our students to be thoughtful about the role of business in society, particularly at a moment in time when capitalism is coming under attack,” says William Boulding, Dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business (US), for The Economist. Deans at many leading universities agree.

Rising interest in ethical leadership courses

Education marketing firm Carrington Crisp and EFMD, the organisation that runs the EQUIS accreditation for business schools, recently published a study which mostly confirms this trend. Researchers surveyed over 1,000 international students who were considering a business degree and found that business ethics came fifth in the list of subjects they were most interested in. While subjects such as big data and finance ranked higher, business ethics was more popular than economics.

Some might argue that the results could be explained by the move towards political correctness – it’s trendy to care about responsible management nowadays. Regardless of students’ motivation, business schools are reflecting these shifts in the market and many of them are filling their ethics courses quickly. Craig Smith, Chair in Ethics and Social Responsibility at INSEAD (France), told Poets&Quants that about 35% more MBA students than usual signed up for his Leadership Ethics elective in 2019.

And this is not just a one-off case. Goizueta Business School (US) is another institution that is revelling in the popularity of its Business and Society course taught by sociologist Wes Longhofer.

How is business and leadership ethics taught?

Putting the focus on ethics and social responsibility in a separate course is a good strategy for MBA programmes that wish to bring attention to their curriculum. However, experts say that it’s even more important for schools to be able to touch upon the ethical side of business holistically. Next to establishing the main pillars of leadership, foundational MBA courses should spend just as much time discussing topics of social and ethical importance.

As Jason Dana, who teaches Ethics and Decision-Making at Yale School of Management (US), explains – ethics should be ingrained in all business and leadership. “Morality is not something you can hang on a hook like your coat when you show up to work,” he points out. “We cannot split our ‘good’ personal selves from our work identities.

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As with any other subject matter, business schools can get creative and approach ethical leadership in so many different ways. Lectures are an obvious option, but discussions and case studies are usually the methods that spark the most interesting ideas and opinions. According to The Economist, all first-year MBA students at Harvard take the Leadership and Corporate Accountability course which looks at 30 case studies. They all explore real problems that managers and organisations have had to deal with, while class participants also weigh in with their own solutions.

How can you tell if schools care about ethics?

Of course, teaching future leaders about ethical management is a great responsibility that schools need to take seriously. Professionals who realise how important this is can invest some time and effort to research how different institutions approach the topic. Jeremy Hazlehurst, editor at Poets&Quants, notes that accreditation can indicate whether a school allocates the necessary resources to teach ethics. For instance, “Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability” forms one of the key assessment areas used by EQUIS to accredit business schools.

While it’s normal for institutions to have different values and to manifest them in unique ways, discussing relevant cases on ethics and sustainability is usually a must. Maura Herson, Assistant Dean of the MBA programme at MIT Sloan (US), believes that top business schools should incorporate current events and information about controversial subjects. Prospective MBA applicants can look into electives that focus on specific industries or job functions, such as a course on the ethics of supply chain management, Ms Herson adds for US News & World Report.

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Regardless of the particular courses they offer, you can tell if business schools are truly committed to the cause by getting to know their values and background. What is the history behind their establishment? How do they show their commitment to diversity? These are just some of the questions professionals can ask when looking into ethically minded institutions. Now more than ever, it’s important to find the right answers.