Dean Joan Marques on Ethical Leadership and What it Means for Business Students

Placing corporate social responsibility within the broad context of moral philosophy, Joan Marques, dean of the School of Business and professor of management, has published “Ethical Leadership: Progress with a Moral Compass” (Routledge, 2017). Dr. Marques is the author of several books and articles on leadership.

We asked Dean Marques a few questions about her latest book, and what she does to help instill ethical behavior in her students.

Question: Your new book, “Ethical Leadership: Progress with a Moral Compass”, helps to create an understanding of the moral and ethical considerations that leaders face in the workplace, as well as provide a framework for balancing business demands with doing the right thing. Can you talk about why the issue of ethics in leadership is so important today?

There are many reasons why the issue of ethics in leadership is important, not just today.

The most direct answer is that the past two decades have confronted us with a record number of unethical leaders, from Enron’s Lay and Skilling to Tyco’s Kozlowski; Worldcom’s Ebbers to Bernie Madoff’s Investment Securities, and many more. While this doesn’t mean that leaders today are less ethical than those of half a century ago, it does mean that there is more exposure of unethical leadership behavior due to the mass media, the Internet and social media.

Another reason that makes leadership ethics important today is the fact that the questionable practices of leaders are no longer limited to one performance area. Immoralities have been disclosed in practically every realm, from business to non-profit, politics to academics; even in religious circles. We have been confronted with inexcusable abuses of power.

Then there is the increased speed of living today, resulting in accelerated performance demands. Leaders are expected to demonstrate progress and returns on investments over a smaller amount of time, oftentimes forcing them to cut corners and become less ethically inclined.

Because we are continuously exposed to this behavior today, it is critical for educators and others to emphasize the fact that leading can be done in an ethical manner, and while this may lead to somewhat slower growth of some business ventures, it also warrants a purer conscience and a happier life for those who choose the ethical path.

Question: With such a long history of unethical behavior in business, some people might see the notion of “ethical business” as an oxymoron. How do you address this?

I am very aware of that, as I have taught business ethics and ethical leadership for almost a decade and students bring this perspective up at the beginning of virtually every course.

I address ethical business through examples. Over the years, I have collected several that help to illustrate some very laudable business leaders, who have shown that it is possible to run a business while striving to do right. Some of these examples include, Ray Anderson, founder and now deceased chairman of Interface, who awakened in the early nineties to realize that he did not have an environmental vision and began working to produce carpet tiles—his company’s main product—in a more environmentally responsible way.

Another example is Muhammad Yunus, founder and former CEO of Grameen Bank. Yunus is the only business leader to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and his business—micro lending—has focused on minimizing poverty.

In my book, I balance the examples of immoral leaders with cases of morally driven leaders such as:

  • Mary Barra, the current chairperson and CEO of General Motors Company, who is known for her perseverance, team approach, inclusivity, collaborativeness, humility, openness, and flexibility;
  • Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky from Airbnb, who demonstrate creative thinking and innovation, but also perseverance and courage with a model that not too long ago would have been perceived with great mistrust. Gebbia and Chesky have shown their desire to do the right thing by joining the pledge to donate half of their wealth to social causes.
  • Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, who led with a belief that the ends don’t always justify the means. She focused on doing well while doing good: leading a well-run company while also serving her community. Rather than focusing on resumes, Burns was more interested in fit, character and good intentions.

Through these and other examples, I demonstrate that it is possible to do business in an ethically responsible manner.

Question: What are the most important notions about ethics that you believe students of business need to take away from their studies?

First and foremost, they should realize that ethics cannot be taught. Even though there are common rules of ethically acceptable and intolerable behavior within societies, ethical perspectives remain very personal. The way I explain it is, that our ethical stances are embedded in our values, and those are also very personal. Each of us maintains our own moral compass, in which we apply various moral theories (even if we are not aware of them), along with our values, our psychological stances, and our interpretation of mindful behavior. We can therefore only discuss ethics, and hope to plant a seed of mindfulness in those exposed to the dialogue.

In my lectures, as well as in this book, I discuss ethical theories to demonstrate that various theories can lead to a wide range of decisions, and that one can therefore not solely rely on one particular ethical theory to make all decisions. The most interesting contradictions surface when comparing utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) to universalism (ensuring that every act should have the merit of being universally acceptable, otherwise it should not be implemented). In utilitarianism, it is perfectly fine to lay off a small group of employees to save the larger community, but in universalism, every person at stake should be treated through reflection: if you would not want to be on the receiving end of an act, don’t implement it.

Consequently, I recommend that my audiences engage in reflection when making ethical decisions. One simple technique is the “family and newspaper” test: if you wouldn’t mind that your family found out about it, or if it were printed with your picture on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, it’s probably sound in your personal perspective.

I also think that students of business should understand that our actions of today will be the foundation to our self-image tomorrow. Minimizing regrets ultimately warrants a happier life overall than a massive bank account with a similar amount of remorse.

Most importantly, I remind business students of the fact that most people strive for happiness, and that the notion of independent wealth has wrongfully been equated to happiness. In my courses I encourage students to participate in civic engagement projects that often entail some form of giving. While there is no guarantee that this will result in a complete paradigm shift, it enables them to get a sense of how good it feels to do something for those in need, and sometimes leads to very rewarding changes in career directions.

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