NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers plunged the world into financial meltdown and jolted the foundations of capitalism, business students don’t just want to learn how to maximize profit for shareholders and themselves.
Instead, many talk about sustainability, ethical leadership and managing companies for the benefit of all “stakeholders.”
“It’s fair to say that 15 or 20 years ago, the vast majority wanted to find lucrative careers,” said Liz Maw, executive director of Net Impact, a non-profit organization that promotes socially sustainable business practices.
“Now the great progress is that people see an MBA as a tool to learn how to be an effective manager of many organizations,” she said, pointing to growing interest in the non-profit sector, government and entrepreneurship among MBA students.
Maw said the trend started around 7 or 8 years ago, coinciding with growing awareness of corporate social responsibility and the environment. But it has accelerated during the financial crisis, which revealed how a short-term thirst for profits fueled risky business practices.
Asked to name their role models, a group of MBA students at New York’s Columbia University cite freedom hero Mahatma Gandhi, a CEO known as an environmentalist and financier-philanthropist Warren Buffett.
“The financial crisis is going to be so deeply associated with our generation, it will put a sense of responsibility on all of us as future leaders,” said Gary Schueller, 28, who has just started a two-year MBA at Columbia Business School.
Schueller named Gandhi as his role model, and within the business world singled out Jeffrey Swartz, chief executive of environmentally conscious shoemaker Timberland.
“He’s a pretty solid example of somebody who’s done a good job of creating a socially friendly company,” Schueller said.
Tim Eby, a 28-year-old engineer who worked for IBM before starting his MBA this month at Columbia, said scandals such as the Ponzi scheme run by disgraced financier Bernard Madoff had made him nervous about even naming a role model.
“I’m sure a few years ago somebody would have said Bernie Madoff is my guy,” Eby said.
Second-year MBA Olivia Albrecht, 26, echoed that caution, but made an exception for financier Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men and most generous philanthropists.
Bruce Kogut, director of the Sanford C. Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia, said the faculty had been debating how to learn the lessons of the crisis.
“Some of it is simply ‘Why did our models and what we teach fail, and did they fail?’” Kogut said. “There also is this issue of ‘Are we turning out people who have unrealistic expectations of their worth and the compensation they should receive?’”
New elements have been introduced to the curriculum this year, and in the summer, Thomas Russo, former vice chairman of Lehman Brothers, taught a course.
This year’s students will study the collapse of the auto industry.
Students at Harvard Business School have created an MBA Oath and are encouraging their peers around the world to pledge to act ethically and “strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.”
Launched in May, the oath was taken by more than half the graduating class of 2009 at Harvard Business School.
The idea of MBA students signing their version of the Hippocratic Oath was the subject of a satirical sketch on the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” but organizers say it’s a start, even if so far there is no enforcement mechanism.
Larry Estrada, 29, a Harvard MBA student from Seattle, said the oath stemmed from a desire to professionalize the MBA and restore some credibility in the face of negative stories about business school alumni involved in the meltdown.
“I don’t think these are necessarily lofty goals, but in the current state of the industry, they certainly seem like a higher standard,” Estrada said.
A list of signatories on the web site www.mbaoath.org shows students from as far afield as Britain, India and Australia.
While many MBA students sound idealistic, their teachers warn that it’s easy to slide down the slippery slope.
Dana Radcliffe, a professor at Cornell University’s Johnson School, taught a course on ethics and corporate culture last semester that he said focused on “what leads good or decent people to do bad things.”
“One of the big areas that needs to be discussed more is ethical responsibility with regard to risk. What should you do when you don’t know? How diligent should you be in seeking out how risky a situation is?” he said.
“I’m not optimistic that these lessons will be learned.”
Albrecht, one of the Columbia MBA students, said only time would tell whether the financial crisis proves to be a turning point for this generation “like a 9/11 pivotal experience.”
“Changes from our generation in terms of thinking on leadership and ethics is not going to shift what jobs you would necessarily go into, (but) it’s going to hopefully shift your perspective when you are in those jobs,” she said.
“The data won’t be out there for maybe 15 years until we are in a decision-making position and our generation really is in the leadership role in these companies and organizations.”
(For a multimedia timeline on the year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers: www.reuters.com/timesofcrisis)
Editing by Dan Grebler