How Business Schools can encourage a more socially responsible Style of Leadership

Talkin’ Business last talked to Prof. Dr. Mariëlle Heijltjes at the end of 2008. In September of that year she had been appointed as the new director of Universiteit Maastricht Business School. With the recent combination of UMBS and FEBA into SBE, she is now our Associate dean and director of Postgraduate Education. Prof. Heijltjes was a keynote speaker at this year’s Conference on Ethics in Business, held at the European Parliament in Brussels in November.

The Conference on Ethics in Business is part of the International Business & Leadership Symposium, an annual event that brings together leaders from business, politics, academia and elsewhere to discuss new sustainable leadership styles that ensure profitability for businesses. When we talked to Prof. Heijltjes last time, she told us: “I strongly feel that we can truly contribute, as a business school, to the creation of solutions in social responsibility issues. For example by incorporating action learning projects that contribute to sustainable value creation, or by engaging programme participants in experiences that benefit developmental projects as well as their own personal development.” In her talk to the conference, entitled ‘Shaping Responsible, Ethical Leaders’, she demonstrated that her enthusiasm for this topic has not dimmed.

Need for collective action
Prof. Heijltjes began her talk by explaining what responsible, ethical leadership means to her. “It is more than just obeying the rules, complying with the law, being honest and being successful without cheating too much,” she argued. She defined it as leadership that understands the value of and need for collective action to achieve economic progress and societal well-being, and acting according to that understanding. “It requires a thorough analysis of how economic, financial, political and value systems interact to produce this economic progress,” she told the conference, “rather than limiting ones goals to economic profit.”

She explained that embracing collective action would mean moving away from the traditional ‘command and control’, hierarchical paradigm of leadership. Finding long-term, sustainable solutions to the challenges society faces today would require the commitment of all the actors involved. Generating this commitment would require a quite different leadership approach. She then suggested how business schools could help in encouraging a more responsible, ethical style of leadership. “Business schools traditionally have taught functional courses – like finance, marketing, strategy or accounting – to help students analyze the rational logic of the business world,” she said. “These functional courses can be nothing more than means in the education of our future leaders. Far more important is a concern with what students are going to do with their acquired knowledge in the business world.”

Experiential learning
Deciding what kind of world they will want to create with the knowledge provided to them by business schools is a question of values, Prof. Heijltjes argued, and one that is not asked often enough in business curricula. Simply adding a course on business ethics could not provide the answer. Schools could only tackle the issue by moving away from traditional lecture-based educational systems to forms of experiential learning in which students engage in an ongoing personal as well as professional development process. Schools should help students to clarify their core values and understand how these values relate to their actual behaviour. “Schools should assist students in broadening their perspective beyond the business environment and let them experience how economic, financial and social systems are interconnected,” she said. In this way, themes such as collective action, economic progress and societal well-being would become more than just theories taught in class.

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