About a year ago, I appeared on an NPR program in Washington discussing some of the reasons behind the 2008-2009 financial meltdown. The show’s host interrupted our conversation about the role business schools played in the crisis with an audio excerpt from the 1986 film "Back to School." Through the headphones, I heard Rodney Dangerfield’s character, Thornton Melon, upbraiding the stuffy business school professor’s lecture for not specifying who an entrepreneur should bribe or beat up to get the business going. The program’s host playfully challenged me with the notion of whether all my ethics talk missed the real world of business, a world which presumably, Thornton Melon embodies.
If you have forgotten Thornton Melon, there’s Gordon Gekko who revisits us, after a stint in prison, in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech in the original "Wall Street" – lifted from Ivan Boesky’s presentation at UCLA – has captured the essence of the problems with business: It sucks. It’s Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and, short of anything resembling decency. In my 24 years of teaching in business schools, some students have gleefully embraced “greed is good.” A few are mortified by it as a stereotype. Most hate the phrase and the stereotype it has become of business people, but, well, see some truth to it. With the real students now “back to school,” what messages are in their heads?
Corporate America does provide plenty of evidence that business really does suck and the market eats it up. Having Darth Vader in a suit builds drama and people find Darth-in-a-suit believable. Some of that may be because the consistent portrayal of bad business people creates its own reality, but most of the business people I have dealt with have been good and honest people trying their best to integrate their personal and business values. The consistent caricature that businesses are the bad guys creates some real problems for teaching students how to be ethical in business and it is as unrealistic as hagiographical biographies would be.
Some students want to transform business practices or who grew up in a family where they saw their parents integrate personal and business values. A few don’t care nor do they care after they have taken the class; they might end up as being great models for "Back to School 2" or "Wall Street 3." Most students, though, find the idea that moral values can have a place in business as revelatory.
Some business schools have begun to figure this out. The proliferation of courses in ethics, corporate social responsibility, environmental sustainability, corporate governance, and corporate citizenship over the last fifteen years has been remarkable. Schools brand themselves around the topic; schools have signed up for the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management commitment, the “ethics pledge” that originated at the Harvard MBA program has spread to many other MBA programs, and student-run “Net Impact” chapters have made these issues part and parcel of business education.
Indeed, business schools recognized a market opportunity: the consuming, investing, working, and governing public doesn’t want corporations to act like 3-year-olds; they’ve demanded a different product. Business schools have found that the demands of the “moral market” were the harbinger of a bigger economic market. Environmental sustainability was a loony moral concern twenty years ago; it’s hard to find a business school without serious attention to it today.
I don’t blame Hollywood for the bad images of business people; anti-business sentiment is much bigger than Hollywood. I just want the film executives to seize another version of this market opportunity. If they do, they’ll open up some new models of heroic, ethical business leaders and simultaneously reinforce the real world people who work hard at being good and decent businesspersons.
Hollywood has done much to advance certain social issues. Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Matthew Broderick in "Glory." Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious." In doing so, Hollywood has provided heroes that spill over into popular life. Erin Brockovich’s work was inspiring, but Julia Roberts' portrayal made Erin into a model that students still resonate with today. Follow that. Exploit the ambivalence. Milk the drama. Show the challenges of being good in business. It might win some box office return. Maybe it would earn an Oscar. I’ll bet it will provide more realistic, dynamic and interesting models that might even help to make business people more ethical in real life.