Ethical leadership must be taught

I started my federal career as a U.S. National Park ranger, and a memory from 24 years ago remains today. In July 1994, I was assigned as a ranger at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments, in New York Harbor.

I was assigned a coveted role for part of my shift: interior rove. This put me inside, on a sweltering summer day, avoiding daily lightning storms, a not insignificant risk for National Park rangers when you work outside on the dock, adjacent to the largest copper lightning rod in the world

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That July, on interior rove, we had a special assignment: Look for vandals who had been repeatedly defacing a portion of the island, where initial vandalism had provoked more and more, with visitors carving their names and initials with pocket knives and pens.  

With my Motorola radio crackling, keys and equipment clanking, I turned a corner during the interior rove, and I heard a voice call out in the distance: “Watch out, the ranger’s coming!” And there they were: criminals carving names in part of our national icon.

But these suspects were not at all what I expected to see. They were middle-school children, wearing plaid jumpers, what appeared to be parochial school uniforms, visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island during summer school. They were destroying perhaps our most cherished national icon, a beacon to the world. 

Thus, this was my first introduction to ethical and moral reasoning. What would cause these children to do something so terrible, so clearly wrong? Was this behavior learned, or was it innate?

These questions repeated again and again, as I encountered severe moral lapses as the chief of Enforcement Section I at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and then as the assistant inspector general for investigations of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Those questions did not involve children but instead the scions of society and business. Those questions continue with me to this day, now as an ethics professor teaching in a top-ranked MBA program.

While lying is innate, ethics are either learned or forgotten.

Protagoras (c. 490 – c. 420 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. From my research, he was the first to argue that ethics can be taught. He wrote that “the sons of good people can turn out bad, and the sons of bad people can turn out good.”  

Similarly, we know that children — all children — learn to lie at a very young age, roughly between 3 and 4 years old, when the cognitive abilities of the child roughly track with the ability to lie. In other words, the greater cognitive ability, the greater the ability to lie.

Strikingly, we also have learned that moral reasoning declines with seniority in position. In other words, the more senior you are in your organization, the less likely you will report wrongdoing and the more likely you will allow it to transpire.

This was shown clearly in a recent ethics research study in Ireland involving apprentice auditors and accountants. Think about that for a moment.

With children’s cognitive lying, Greek philosophers espousing that birth status does not determine ethics and peer-reviewed research showing moral decline with rank, what’s a society to do?  

The answer is clear: We need to teach ethics in undergraduate studies and in graduate school. We also need universities to demonstrate ethics through their own codes of conduct and values. Particularly in business education, this demonstrated ethics is sorely lacking.

Surprisingly, most universities in the United States do not mandate such courses in ethics in undergraduate studies.

At the University of Maryland’s business school, where I teach the undergraduate accounting ethics course, the course is required only because the students are Certified Professional Accountant candidates, and state boards of accountancy require a course in general or professional ethics.

There is no requirement, however, for other majors, particularly those in finance (either at the undergraduate or graduate level), professions in which individuals will inevitably be exposed to ethical and legal dilemmas as they move into our nation’s largest investment banks.

In my undergraduate fraud examination class, on the first day of the semester, I ask my students to sit back, close their eyes and picture, if they were looking at mugshots, what a fraudster might look like to them. Then, I ask them to open their eyes, raise their hands and tell the class who they imagined.

Do you know who they actually look like? Demographically, they look like graduates of MBA or MS programs. In other words, they look just like the students in the class.

David P. Weber is a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, where he chairs eight sections of the required ethical leadership course in the top-ranked MBA program and teaches three sections of undergraduate professionalism and ethics in accounting each year. He concluded his federal service as the assistant inspector general for investigations for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.