Why I'm Signing the MBA Oath

As public opinion of business leaders is near an all-time low, signing the MBA Oath sends a message that MBA graduates recognize the influence business has on society and are ready to shoulder the ethical responsibility that comes with that.
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As I approach my business school graduation at the end of this month, I must decide whether or not to sign the MBA Oath. The origins of the Oath lie in an article by Harvard Business School professors Rakesh Khurana and (now Dean) Nitin Nohria, emphasizing the need to make management a profession, beginning with the establishment of a code of ethics. Since then, MBA students from around the world have put forward a variety of statements designed to constitute the MBA Oath, most with a general sentiment like the following: "I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society."

Not every MBA is eager to take this Oath, however. Indeed, there is much controversy over its legitimacy and the Oath has never been made mandatory for MBA graduates. The general argument against it is twofold: one, that an MBA education does not constitute a profession (unlike, for example, medicine, which requires the Hippocratic Oath); and two, that the Oath will do little to influence behavior (i.e., those who do not believe in ethical leadership will not change their minds as a result of this movement).

These detractors are missing the point. To a great extent, the Oath's value lies with those who are yet to embark on an MBA and still considering which path to pursue in life. When a child dreams of being a doctor, she can read the Hippocratic Oath to understand the animating principles of the medical profession.The Presidential Oath of Office offers a moral compass for aspiring Commanders in Chief. Even the vows of marriage are known to young children as the expectations for being a good husband or wife. What set of principles do we have to resonate with future business leaders? If managers should consider themselves members of a profession, as Khurana and Nohria suggest, then they owe it to the world to explain the principles that guide their guild.

For those of us who have already chosen this course, the MBA Oath serves as a referendum on our burgeoning profession. At a time when the public opinion of business leaders and managers is near an all-time low, signing the MBA Oath signals a commitment to changing that image. It sends a message to the public that today's MBA graduates recognize the enormous influence business has on society and that they are ready to shoulder the ethical responsibility that comes with that power.

Those who refuse to sign the Oath argue that such a movement will make no impact. I believe, however, that collective action can have a tremendous influence on others. In a society where people so often look to their peers or environment to determine their actions, signing the Oath en masse can foster an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to behave ethically. Given this context, why should we believe the MBA Oath will not change any minds? Better yet, what is the harm in trying?

So, my fellow MBAs, I encourage you to sign the MBA Oath. Let's show the world, much of which has lost faith in our ability to run a business with the highest ethical standards, that we recognize our responsibilities and will strive to lead without compromising our moral values. We owe it to the world -- and to ourselves. That's why I'm signing the MBA Oath.

Daniel Arrigg Koh is a second-year MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College. He can be reached at dkoh@mba2011.hbs.edu.

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