Should Managers Have a Green Hippocratic Oath?

The following is reposted with permission from two of the founding Oath Project board members: Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria. Rakesh Khurana is an associate professor of business administration in the organizational behavior area at Harvard Business School. Nitin Nohria was the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean and director of faculty development at Harvard Business School when this blog was posted and is now the dean of the Harvard Business School.

Widespread recognition of climate change and other major environmental problems has made it clear that the next generation of corporate leaders will be forced to grapple with a set of enormously complex and important issues. Given how business activities affect the environment, should new managers be asked to take an oath similar to the ones that doctors recite–requiring business leaders to first do no harm, including harm to the environment? Harvard Business School professors Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria say that they should, and encourage you to help them write such an oath.

The once unassailable notion that corporations exist solely to maximize their shareholders’ returns is crumbling. Without a doubt, the dramatic scale and scope of the challenges presented by climate change will require the next generation of business leaders to adopt a more socially oriented professional identity. Recently, Bill Gates has called for a new “creative capitalism.”Where once it was enough to simply deliver results to the bottom line, Gates noted, the next generation of managers will be held responsible for decisions that have effects far beyond their corporations and the markets they serve.

To prepare new managers for the challenges that await them, dramatic changes in their education and training will be necessary. Business school courses will need to incorporate facts and decision-making frameworks that go beyond the conventional market logic that now dominates the MBA curriculum. 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.

Management, in other words, will have to become more like the learned 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. Most professional codes, including the modern version of the ancient Hippocratic oath for doctors, clearly articulate the higher aims and social purposes of the profession and the norms of conduct that should govern members’ behavior in pursuing these purposes.

A management oath should be created to encourage business leaders to be aware of the broader implications of their actions, including those related to the environment. Simply survey the history of management or business schools’ curricula, and you will see that the notion that corporations have a responsibility to society is not a new idea, simply a forgotten one. Perhaps the frightening and complex issue of climate change will serve as a wake up call for managers and business educators, spurring them to create their own code of conduct.