07/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On the Matter of the M.B.A. Oath

Michael Skapinker has a column in the Financial Times Tuesday discussing an oath, hatched at Harvard Business School, that's been getting publicity of late. The oath, apparently signed by 1,100 business school graduates -- we're counting! -- promises the usual oath shtick: Be good, be true, mentor effectively. Skapinker likes the oath, though he admits that some of the strictures are "bromides," particularly because it sideswipes the fixation on shareholder value, cavils at "short-term bonuses" and -- egads! -- promises not to chase personal ambition.

So what's left? More practically, how can I pay off the damn student loan if I can't indulge in my personal ambition of accumulating great wealth?

Skapinker realizes you can make fun of this. Nonetheless, he believes that this could be the start of something big -- a kind of professionalization of the M.B.A. akin to what the doctors and the lawyers have, with their oaths, guidelines, professional organizations and ethics bodies. This at least makes a modicum of sense, until he offers up journalism as a model. Now I have been employed in journalism for a number of years, mostly in places that would not be described as the "gutter press," and I have never really had to take an oath on a "professional code." True, accuracy is an important part of the job, which, like any craft, from plumbing to engineering, requires certain basic skills. But in a profession gripped by often-divergent idealisms, I've never detected much more than an inchoate (and personal) attempt to formalize what's right and what's wrong except don't lie, cheat or make up crap.

But there are deeper problems with this crusade, besides the recurring thought that taking this oath might be a form of ambition. The oath argues against the shareholder-centric orthodoxy that has held Anglo-American capitalism in its grip since the '80s. Are there problems with this model? Absolutely, but its reign is essentially unchecked; it is an embodiment of the conventional wisdom, no matter what Jack Welch mutters in retirement. With every crisis, from Enron to the current mess, the reflexive response from the governance establishment, which includes the Securities and Exchange Commission and the folks at Harvard Law School, is for more shareholder power; not less. In these precincts, the power of the shareholder is viewed as a great and unitary virtue -- and as the only cudgel short of direct regulation over that contemporary evil, runaway compensation dominated by short-term bonuses, and its evil twin, entrenched boards and managers.

How exactly would a spanking-new M.B.A. begin to overturn that? And in doing so, wouldn't that empower boards and managers? Besides, in actively attempting to live that clause in the oath, wouldn't that mean your climb up the ladder might be delayed, thus reducing your influence to make real changes? Have the two HBS progenitors of the oath turned on shareholders? Have they written an effective critique of the system that -- and this is no coincidence -- has grown in power and influence in line with the M.B.A. itself? Just wondering, but if we're going to spread the wealth around here to nondegree holders, wouldn't the value of the M.B.A. decline?

This brings us to a second point. The comparison to law and medicine suggests that "management" is based on a corpus of knowledge and techniques that has been empirically tested, and that that body of knowledge somehow represents a shining moral ideal. Delving too deeply into this, even in the case of law and medicine, leads you into perilous waters where the pragmatism of professionalization and status meets practical ethics. "Business" does not involve written texts and tested facts; it's relative, changeable, elusive. If that's the case in business, why are we assaulted every year by new management tomes claiming new approaches and new ideas for every new generation of managers? It's a sign of how hazy all this is in business that the moral vision is based on whether shareholders own companies or whether the wealth gets more equitably shared by workers, communities, customers or Uncle Joe: that is between two competing ideas, dressed up in moral robes, about who gets the loot and who calls the shots.

But "management" as a set of skills lacks the "scientific" credentials of either the law or medicine. The real-life goal of management is to create wealth. Management lacks the distilled moral clarity of the law, serve the client (while hopefully not lying and cheating to do so), or medicine: treat the patient or at least don't harm him. Most business school grads will attempt to fulfill this oath in large corporations where their connection to whatever common good exists is attenuated and diffuse at best. Who's the client? Who's the patient? The notion that every Wall Streeter -- even those at the top -- knew that whatever they were doing with mortgages or credit default swaps was wrong and would lead to disaster is simply wrong. Corporations are large bureaucracies. Most folks in finance, even those earning large amounts of money, had limited views of complex situations. Their sense of responsibility extended to colleagues and immediate supervisors; even the notion that they could extrapolate their own situation across a firm of, say, 40,000 employees and thousands of shareholders, is a joke.

Given those limitations, the only oath that makes sense should resemble the doctors: do no harm. Don't lie, don't cheat, do no harm. Of course, those moral structures can be written on a matchbook cover and won't get you into any club worth joining.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal.