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A moral take on leadership

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  • Business school course examines issue of moral leadership
  • MBA course uses historical and fictional characters to illustrate points
  • Those considered include Sophocles and Sit Thomas More
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By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As a would-be chief executive you have many possible role models. So why not try Greek philosopher Sophocles, a fictional butler and one of King Henry VIII's chief advisers?

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A joint statue of Sophocles (right) and Antigones, owned by the Louvre in Paris

Unusual perhaps, but nonetheless part of an innovative business school course which aims to be teach students the nebulous yet vital area of moral leadership.

Harvard Business School (HBS) has been at the forefront of this process, offering a course on moral leadership for around 20 years.

The HBS course has two extra novelties. Firstly it draws on the stories of both real historical figures and characters in works of literature to illustrate the points being taught.

Also, the professor who heads the Moral Leader course, Sandra Sucher, is now attempting to spread the word more widely by producing both a textbook and a teacher's guide for the program, taught as HBS as second year MBA elective.

Sucher herself attempts to enlighten students by leading them through the moral dilemmas faced by everyone from Sophocles to the publisher of the Washington Post during the Watergate investigation.

She explains that she became interested in the issue during many years spent in the corporate and non-profit world, having herself faced dilemmas such as a whistleblower who accused one executive of fiddling the organization's books and threatened to tell the media if the board failed to intervene.

When she returned to HBS nearly a decade ago, Sucher volunteered to teach ethics-based leadership. Her course dedicates each of its 13 weeks to discussing and drawing lessons from a work of fiction, biography, autobiography, or history.

The source material, she explains, "spans 2,000 years, covers eight countries and all of the continents and continually challenges students to expand their understanding of the world and their place as future leaders in it."

Sucher says there are clear advantages to introducing fiction and fictional characters into the discourse.

"One benefit derives from the literature itself," she says. "Through the novels, plays, short stories, and historical accounts students are brought much closer to life as it is really lived, certainly closer than in lecture learning and even closer than in a case discussion."

Another benefit, she adds, is that "we know what happens. Unlike a case, which always ends with an action question, "If you were Ms. X, what would you do?", in literature we get to see the rest of the story."

Some of the weeks incorporate both history and fiction, for example the reading of "A Man for All Seasons," Robert Bolt's 1954 play -- later reworked into a famous 1966 film - about the life of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to England's mercurial King Henry VIII in the 16th century.

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007

More faced innumerable tricky decisions, notably whether to go against his Catholic beliefs and approve the king's divorce -- knowing that defying the monarch too strongly could see him imprisoned or even executed.

In the realm of pure fiction, students also discuss "The Remains of the Day," a 1989 novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro -- also made into a successful film, starring Anthony Hopkins -- about the all-encompassing professional loyalty a 1930s butler feels to his aristocratic employer.

Sucher cites a student's comment about the effect of the novel on her professional perspective: "That book hit me like a bullet between the eyes. I could see myself doing exactly what Stevens did -- subordinating everything to my career and my bosses' interests. It was terrifying."

Closer to home, both historically and in being rooted in fact, is the autobiography of Katherine (Kay) Graham, publisher of the Washington Post as it doggedly pursued the Watergate investigation.

Sucher notes out that Graham was by no means involved in the investigation, but was at pains to set out the general rules the paper should follow during the story.

"That's a pretty sophisticated view of moral leadership -- setting the rules within which an organization pursues a moral task -- and it flows from being comfortable enough with ambiguity to focus on the process of work as well as its goal." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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