Cultivating Ethical Leaders

Prioritizing dignity, well-being, and sustainability aligns with global needs and student desires

by Jennifer S.A. Leigh, Ph.D.

illustration of women climbing a mountain

When I say at a cocktail party that I teach business ethics, strategy, and social entrepreneurship, people inevitably say, “You can’t really teach ethics, can you? Look at the news.”

News, TV series, documentaries, and movies repeat the narrative of “bad” business, “bad apples” (individuals), and “bad barrels” (broken economic incentive systems). I love when people occasionally home in on social innovation and entrepreneurship — since they’re the big “why” of my work. There’s a seismic shift happening for citizens and consumers, particularly millennials. A 2015 paper on a Yale University study called “Rising Leaders on Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change” found millennials want to work for socially responsible companies and nonprofits, and to support companies that are “doing good.”

This desire to see businesses act as positive change agents is a response to the challenges and opportunities facing humanity. In the past decade, I’ve become involved with global initiatives that push businesses to engage with “super wicked problems,” including climate change, corruption, and income inequality. The United Nations has asked businesses to join it in working for a sustainable and fairer planet by supporting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Meanwhile, the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) attracted over 730 business schools to voluntarily reform to prepare leaders who understand their ethical obligations to society.

I work with these associations, and others, to be among thousands of educators and managers training tomorrow’s leaders to tackle grand challenges and run organizations that prioritize dignity, well-being, and sustainability.

My job is to coach students for jobs that don’t yet exist, in an environment that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Organizations like the International Humanistic Management Association and the Management and Organizational Behavior Teaching Society assist me in preparing students to think critically and bravely promote ethical values.

Among the ways I do this in class:

  • Support student-led role-plays that address real ethical dilemmas students have faced at work with concepts from behavioral ethics, philosophy, and psychology
  • Allow student teams to teach classes, emphasizing evidence-based research, on topics like poverty, child labor, and diversity
  • Ask students to develop rapid prototypes of new upcycled products from garbage and recyclables and pitch them

My constant exploration has led to three main insights.

Include learning off campus:

I use service-learning, partnering with community agencies to tackle small projects focused on large challenges — for example, refugee entrepreneurship.

All senior business administration majors work on the X-Culture Project with students globally to crowdsource solutions for businesses.

Adam Lewandowski in the Center for Civic Engagement and I have run two social innovation hackathons, bringing in community experts and having student teams develop solutions to challenges like integrating wind farms into new communities.

Experiential learning approaches are nearly always messy,

especially when components come from the recycling bin. Yet in the landscape of continuous change, these activities foster foundational skills: critical thinking about research data; use of technology; cross-sectoral competencies; proficiency with difficult ethics conversations; and work with diverse colleagues in global virtual teams.

Teachers must model humanistic and responsible management.

My classes are like workshops, with just-in-time lectures, intense collaboration, and real-time feedback and reflection. These formats replace hierarchy with an adaptive co-learning model that also works in boardrooms.

I expect that my future cocktail party chit-chat will include fewer snarky comments and more enthusiastic stories about responsible companies led by Nazareth alums promoting ethical values through progressive employee benefits and ownership structures, distinctive corporate social responsibility programs, sustainable supply chain management, and more. I’ll toast to that!

Leigh is the Kilian J. and Caroline F. Schmitt endowed chair and professor, School of Business and Leadership.