In 1908 a new management program was introduced at Harvard University. The program’s goal was to educate those who would become the leaders of the large corporations which were emerging as a feature of the American business landscape. The program’s founders believed that corporations should be run in a manner that reflected the interests of society. The vision of the program, one still reflected in the motto of the Harvard Business School today, was “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”

One hundred years later a lot of questions are being asked about the difference those leaders have made and whether or not the interests of society have indeed been respected.  The gap between rich and poor has grown increasingly wide, as has the gap between executive compensation and the wage of working men and women.  Ethical values seem to have been replaced by egotism, narcissism and greed.

In the face of the economic meltdown, a group of Harvard MBA students decided it might be time for a change. They started asking some questions:  What would we want our class to be remembered for? What should our legacy be? What can we do to ensure that MBA becomes synonymous with integrity, professionalism and leadership? From those questions the MBA oath was born.

The oath is a voluntary pledge which MBA students interested in “creating value responsibly and ethically” are invited to sign. It is intended to provide a foundation of ethical practice for business leaders, much as the Hippocratic oath does for medical doctors. The idea, according to Max Anderson, one of the members of the group at Harvard that initiated the MBA Oath, is  “… to begin a widespread movement of MBAs who aim to lead in the interests of the greater good and who have committed to living out the principles articulated in the oath.”

Within weeks 450 Harvard MBA students, half of the graduating class, as well as over 1000 MBA graduates from schools in 115 countries, speaking 49 different languages, signed on. There have been requests to have the oath translated into German, French, Spanish, Icelandic and Norwegian. Columbia Business School has something similar to the oath, an honour code for the business grads, in place for the last 3 years. Here in Canada the University of Ottawa just introduced their version of the Harvard MBA oath. It appears that this is an idea that is catching on.

In this age of corporate greed and financial rip offs a la Bernie Madoff, should we really be surprised by this interest in a return to values based leadership?  I think not. One of the values you will find enumerated in both the Harvard and the U of Ottawa oath is respect. Respect is universally recognized as an ethical value.  When respect is embraced as a core cultural value and becomes embedded in all business practices, the result is a business model that demands ethical behaviour and ethical leadership, which inevitably spills over from the workplace to impact society at large.

Business students that are graduating today are looking for more in their careers than the on ramp to financial success. Like their Generation Y peers, they have an interest in ethical conduct and corporate social responsibility. According to those in the know in business schools, this is not a passing fad, but a trend that is gaining momentum and is here to stay.

As I argue in my book Road to Respect: Path to Profit, having a values based culture where respect is a embraced as a core cultural value ensures that business is in a  position to attract and retain the best and brightest talent in today’s marketplace. Graduates that have signed the MBA oath will be interested in workplaces that will offer them the opportunity to walk the talk of ethical, respectful leadership.

What will they experience when they come and work for you?  Will they see their values reflected in your corporate culture, in your business practices?  Will your culture ensure they stay, or encourage them to look elsewhere for that opportunity to make a difference?

Tomorrow’s leaders are looking for opportunities today. Why not become their employer of choice. Create a respectful workplace culture. Give them the chance to make a difference. We will all be the richer for it.