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Using Great Literature to Teach Business Ethics

Thanks to strengthened financial reporting and governance laws, a growing number of corporate executives in the United States have exchanged pinstripes for jail stripes. It makes the public wonder about just what those fancy business schools are teaching up-and-coming leaders.

In fact, many business programs feature offerings in ethical decision making -- Harvard Business School has provided courses with "ethics" in the title for much of its near 100-year history. But how is the squishy subject of moral behavior taught? Since the 1990s, professors at HBS have used great works of literature to help students get a handle on the issues.

In the latest edition of HBS Working Knowledge, professor Sandra Sucher discusses her classroom approach to teaching ethics to MBAs by using great works including Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"; Sophocles' play "Antigone"; Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"; and Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons".
Says Sucher: "Based on my own experience, the course has been designed to explore practical questions that help us understand the moral domain and where morality and leadership intersect: "What is the nature of a moral challenge?" "How do people 'reason morally'?" "How is moral leadership different from leadership of any other kind?"

Great literature allows students to develop emotional reactions to characters facing difficult decisions and prompts great classroom discussions and learning, she says. Ultimately, students work out their own workable definition of moral leadership.

Should moral leadership be a required offering at the world's great business schools? How would you teach the course?

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