A Green Oath for Business Leaders

Last Updated Apr 9, 2008 8:50 AM EDT

Most medical professionals take an oath that charges them to consider the broader implications of their actions on society.

Business leaders, of course, take no such oath. Until recently, it was commonly accepted that the only interests they served were those of shareholders and, to a lesser extent, employees. But the rise of the corporate social responsibility movement and increasing environmental pressure on the planet is changing that view, with a recognition by many that business also must serve societal interests.

So Harvard Business School professors Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria ask a provocative question: Should business leaders be required to take a professional oath, just like doctors do? A green Hippocratic Oath, as it were.

The logic for an oath follows from the belief that managers will more and more be held accountable for their social actions. To prepare them for that challenge, Khurana and Nohria call on business education programs to broaden what they teach managers-to-be.

"Students will need to learn how to incorporate environmental and social goals in decision making. They will also need to break away from misleading and simplistic ideas that caricature managers as the hired hands of shareholders. "
In other words, management as a profession will become more like the professions of medicine and law. "Professions such as these are, at least in theory, characterized by an orientation to serving society -- and they have something the profession of management does not have -- a normative code or oath that encourages leaders to consider the broader implications of their actions."

What do you think? Should business managers be held to a higher standard? Is a professional oath one effective way to drive those standards?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.