HBS Dean On Ethics and Character

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria says it’s simply a myth that some people are of good character and others are not—and that you can’t do much about it over the course of a person’s life.

“Some people are able to measure up to new responsibilities and challenges and pressures, and some people are not,” he said in an interview published Friday (July 22) by The New York Times.  “And this is not so much because they were good or bad people, but because the pressure they were under either brought out their best selves or brought out their worst selves, and we all have both those selves in us.

“One of the greatest myths is that character is like a trait you’re either a person of good character or you’re a person of bad character, and there’s little opportunity for the development of character over the course of one’s life. In fact, research demonstrates that character is something one has to work at forming and developing over the course of our lives, just as we focus on developing our judgment.”

Asked if a Harvard education can help mold character, Nohria said: “What we are trying to do is to allow our students to develop moral humility. We can expose them to the wide variety of pressures that they will face over the course of their careers. We give them 30 cases to show them the wide variety of ways in which good people were led astray because of the pressures that came from their cultures or from bosses, or how they themselves have used incentives in ways to sometimes promote, unwittingly, wrongdoing either by themselves or others. And just being a good person doesn’t assure you of the fact that you’ll always make morally sound decisions. We saw that in the economic crisis.”

Nohria said he sees MBA education as more of a “starter kit” than something that could transform a person into a leader in two years. “Our goal,” he said, “is to give students a concentrated opportunity to think about the challenges of leadership in a wide variety of ways. We hope to give people a starter kit for thinking about decision-making and the complexity of decision-making, and that students will learn a lot about what makes an effective team and how other people relate to them.”