Daily Archives: June 18, 2009

The MBA Oath: Will It Have Any Impact?

Last week a recent Harvard MBA 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 harvardbusiness.org, 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.”

According to Anderson, “Beyond Harvard, more than 200 students at other business schools, from Stanford to Wharton to Oxford, have also signed the Oath. Just this week, we received a request to translate the oath into Spanish for an MBA program in Colombia.”

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.”

Even if the oath is somewhat hollow, is it possible that it still might steer some grads towards a more responsible path? Anderson cites some research suggests that such public commitments do in fact impact one’s actions. Even if it’s just a bunch of words, the argument goes, stating those words publicly makes someone more inclined to follow them, even if only a little.

Unfortunately, even the most bullish oath taker will admit that no oath 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.