Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

MBA Oath — “My purpose is to serve the greater good”

Within my college circle, a career in business was not an admirable path. When I revealed to my friends that I intended to seek an MBA from Harvard Business School, for the next several meals I became invisible. No one spoke to me. I had died, and they referred to me in the past.

HBS women -- 1963
HBS women -- 1963
I got my MBA in 1968, and the world was surely different then. In my class of 700, there were only seven women, with not a single one in my section of 100. Fifty women were in the 1970 cohort, and by 2007, the Harvard MBA class was 35% female [source].

One thing hasn’t changed, however: business managers are still viewed as grasping, self-interested, and greedy. Think Madoff, AIG, Enron, almost all the Wall Street firms, and Name-A-Bank. Few think that businessmen would honestly affirm, “My purpose is to serve the greater good.”

Yet this year, a couple of Harvard MBA students decided to do something about their image—to say “My purpose is to serve the greater good”—and to get others to say the same. They created an oath with a goal of getting 100 Harvard MBAs to sign on.

They greatly exceeded that goal; nearly 500, over half of the class, took the pledge.

The MBA Oath:

As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face choices that are not easy for me and others.

Therefore I promise:

  • I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
  • I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
  • I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
  • I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
  • I will take responsibility for my actions, and I will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
  • I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
  • I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
  • I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.

Word spread, and students at other business school students opened chapters and signed the oath. In June, BusinessWeek wrote about the phenomenon, “Harvard’s MBA Oath Goes Viral.”

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath. It is ceremonial, but the license required before the practice of medicine is real and essential. Business management requires no such license. Will taking the MBA Oath make a difference? I suspect not…unless teeth appear.

But what if Harvard and other business schools decided that ethical behavior was not only a subject to study, but also a requirement for their MBA degree, with taking this Oath mandatory? In that case, if any MBAs were subsequently guilty (as ascertained by a non-judicial, university-run tribunal) of breaking their oaths, their MBA degrees would be revoked.

Would it matter to Madoffs, Lays, and the like? Probably not, but it could create a different climate within the graduate schools, one that might have a positive influence on all but the most venal.

What a dreamer I am.

3 Comments

  1. Philipico says:

    You are a dreamer, and I am a cynic. But…… I wish for the realization of your dream.

  2. John Holt says:

    Steve,

    It was your “business managers are still viewed as grasping, self-interested, and greedy” quote that reminded me of why I left my banking career in 1980 after 21 years. I had attended a HBS led, one week seminar for we “managers” and became disenchanted with the drive for profits and almost denial of responsibility for the 8 principles propounded in your oath.

    I’m delighted to learn how many of your classmates signed on!!! There’s hope!

    • Steve says:

      In the late ’80s, my boss told me that could have been a great securities salesman if I only had “more larceny in my heart.” My assignment, he more than once intoned, was “to turn my clients’ assets into my personal net worth.”

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