Thursday, June 18, 2009

What Does the MBA Oath Accomplish?

Last week a recent Harvard Business School graduate spoke out about the Class of 2009's collective effort to create and endorse a new "MBA Oath" in response to the public beating that the Master of Business Administration degree has taken in the public eye. In an article posted on, Max Anderson explained he and his classmates' reasons for signing the oath.

"The oath began as a voluntary, opt-in grassroots initiative among our classmates to get 100 HBS students to sign by graduation," Anderson wrote. "We based our oath language largely on a draft of an oath completed by Professors Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana in the Harvard Business Review last October, with a few edits of our own. We thought 100, or more than 10% of the class, would have symbolic power. As of June 8, 2009, more than 50% of Harvard's graduating MBA class has signed the oath."

But what exactly is the oath supposed to accomplish? Anderson explains, "We hope the Oath will accomplish three things: a) make a difference in the lives of the students who take the oath, b) challenge other classmates to work with a higher professional standard, whether they sign the oath or not and c) create a public conversation in the press about professionalizing and improving management."

While many people in the press have expressed skepticism that such an oath will in any way impact these graduates' future behavior, Anderson cites some behavioral science research that suggests that such public commitments do in fact impact one's actions. So, even if the oath is somewhat hollow, is it possible that it still might steer some grads towards a more responsible path?

Others have referred to the wave of new ethics courses in business schools in the wake of the Enron and Worldcom scandals of a few years ago, and the impact that these courses have had (or haven't had) so far. However, these courses are still so new that, even if they are effective, it's too soon to see their impact.

The net takeaway is that none of these changes is likely to single-handedly solve any widespread cultural problems among MBAs (if you believe there are any) that could drive them towards reckless or irresponsible behavior. Taken together, though, over time they may start to positively impact MBA grads.

However, as much as we believe in the power of HBS or any other business school to transform someone into stronger business leader, we also believe that how likely someone is to be a responsible manager (and a responsible community member overall) depends more on who they are when they enter business school than on the lessons they learn -- and the oaths they take -- while in school. And that will never change.