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Smith Professor Challenges Students to Think
There are several commonly held theories on how institutions
change. One is derived from game theory and is
evolutionary in nature; a second is based on statistical
modeling. Smith professor Shreevardhan Lele subscribes to
an entirely different theory--that someone, somewhere within an
organization must actively make a choice to go against the norm.
This applies to all areas and functions, Lele said, from
socially responsible investing to supply chain. "At some
point, someone does something that is not the norm," he said.
"But this requires imagination to see beyond short-term goals.
Small changes are not impossible."
It's this type of active decision-making that Lele teaches
each semester in his MBA and EMBA courses on Social
Responsibility in Business and Ethical Leadership, respectively.
Lele, now in his 17th year at the Smith School, challenges
students to consider ethical leadership as not just taking
actions, but in making choices about--and changing--values and
"It's not as easy," he said. "But we have a lot more
choice than we acknowledge. From things like leave policy,
to supply chain sourcing, very small to very large--the key is
acknowledging that we have that choice."
Lele's current research focuses on the role of the MBA
education, and specifically on the roles of ethics and social
responsibility in the curriculum. There's a natural
skepticism, he said, about whether changes to the MBA curriculum
can work to reduce unethical decision-making once students leave
"The skepticism misses the point," he said. "There's a
difference in learning and conduct, and this is up to students.
The conduct of students cannot be enforced by the school."
Because of this distinction, the discipline of ethics--which
he defines as a way of looking at things--should be not held to
a higher standard than disciplines like economics or law when it
comes to the conduct of graduating students, he said.
"Teaching is not coercing behavior," Lele said.
So what does this mean in a time when confidence in
traditional business is at a low, and when students are seeking
out opportunities to express their values through things like
the MBA Oath?
Lele said that here at Smith, students have approached him
about crafting their own version of an oath, but it's something
he cautions them to proceed slowly with.
"It's kicking off a very long discussion," he said, and one
he'll help them explore in his courses this semester.