Business & economics

VW: technik unsprung

Professor Chris MabeyProfessor of HRM at Middlesex University Chris Mabey is the co-editor of ‘Developing leadership: Questions Business Schools Don’t Ask’. In the wake of the VW emissions scandal, he says business schools have a responsibility to develop more ethically minded leaders.  

Vorsprung durch Technik is the advertising slogan and company ethos of VW and Audi. It means ‘advancement through technology’ and is the famed epitome of German manufacturing quality. A few years back, a senior executive, or more likely a cabal of executives, felt it defensible to cheat the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions test. It was clever. It was also criminal. Just over two weeks ago the ruse was rumbled. A case of technik unsprung.

Moral meltdown

But this is just the latest moral meltdown in a string of corporate scandals. Few sectors have escaped; with public officials and senior leaders guilty of malpractice, duplicity, fraud and corporate malfeasance. We might ask what are conventional leadership theories doing to equip those with power to act ethically and responsibly?  At a more macro level, tighter audits and regulation remain toothless in dealing with the pernicious ethos of envy, greed and injustice. Many of the social and environmental problems we face in the 21st century are, in fact, spiritual in nature, rooted in a flawed human condition. James Speth, former environmental advisor to President Carter, claims that “the top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation”.

VW badge - Gerry Lauzon (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Gerry Lauzon (Creative Commons 2.0)

Before becoming too judgemental, I ask myself as a leader: how do I deal with the persistence of ego; how do I reduce the credibility gap between what I say and what I do, focus on the important rather than the urgent and stay resolute to my life goals?  And, as a Professor of Leadership at Middlesex University Business School, I wonder how I can help others find their moral compass, lead responsibly, shun bad/unethical practice, energise others and leave behind a meaningful legacy? Indeed, in my more cynical moments I wonder whether we as educators have over-calibrated our courses, skewed our research and ‘fixed’ our performance so as to meet ever tighter scrutiny and generate income. In short, have we collectively cheated on our own ‘emissions’ test of high-performing students?

Difficult questions

Actually these are questions that have vexed me for a long time since my early career as a developer of leadership with British Telecom and Rank Xerox and, then more recently, as an academic. So three years ago I decided to act. I invited a number of colleagues in my network in the UK and across the world to nail one question that business schools don’t ask… but should. The response was immediate and overwhelming. I seemed to have struck a raw nerve and creative contributions poured in. The result is an edited book published by SAGE in July called Developing leadership: Questions Business Schools Don’t Ask.

The first section of the book highlights where business schools have lost their way: how they frequently fail in their original mission to be capitalism’s conscience; how they do not ask questions other institutions are afraid to ask; how they falter in promoting multi-disciplinary dialogue; and how they avoid the discomfort of provoking deeper self- and other-awareness. Too many business schools have lost touch with the world of work, indeed with the very ‘humanness’ of organisations and have become less human environments themselves. So different chapters ask: Do all businesses have to grow? Can leadership ever be values-free? In what ways are market capitalism and modern economics morally suspect? What do we lose ethically when we treat ourselves and others as disembodied and de-politicised subjects?

Ethical high ground

But along with the critique comes an array of antidotes which show how business schools can regain their ethical high ground. They do this by digging some neglected terrain of varied traditions and faiths: these include Heideggerian philosophy, Hebrew wisdom literature, Christian spirituality, MacIntyre’s virtue, classical Greek philosophy and the Maori notion of wairua. Finally, the book considers not just what and why we teach in business schools, but how. Contributors draw upon their first-hand experience in the MBA classroom: the genre-crossing and century-hopping relevance of Balzac to the demise of Lehmann Brothers; how a cross-cultural fist-fight in the classroom led to learning about respect; and why ancient Hebrew wisdom is packed with 21st century resonance. The book finishes with three raw, pedagogic challenges: teaching cosmopolitan values to mainland China students; modelling an ethic of care in the face of public sector redundancies; and creating legitimacy for students to critique their favourite management ‘blockbuster’.

As a co-editor, I feel privileged to gather together such a rich mix of perspectives and offer an up-beat pathway for business schools to regain the initiative in promoting ethical leadership. And, it seems this ‘conversation’ has wider appeal: the Economic and Social Research Council are funding nine seminars on Ethical Leadership led by Middlesex University Business School. Eager to embrace the themes of ethics and diversity, KPMG hosted the first two seminars at their Salisbury Square HQ and SAGE Publishers are filming each one. The conversation continues at

Professor Mabey is launching his book at Middlesex University on 28 October 2015.