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Occupy the Next Generation of Wall Street

Posted: 10/19/11 10:03 AM ET

As the Occupy movement spreads from its impromptu vigil on Wall Street, encroaching on financial districts in cities worldwide, the protesters gain momentum.

But the grassroots campaign that hit Toronto's Bay Street this weekend has garnered frequent criticism for embracing so many causes and no clear mandate. Unlike its distant cousin, the Tea Party, which sounded a clear rallying cry for lower taxes and less government, it's difficult to translate the broad populist rhetoric of the Occupy movement into tangible political change.

Maybe it's not the message that is the problem, but the location of the pulpit.

How do the disenfranchised masses, the self-proclaimed "99 per cent," shift the thinking of their target, the so-called "elite one per cent?" Protesting on Wall Street captures headlines, but the people sipping champagne while watching the sit-in from executive suites aren't eager to become converts.

An alternative strategy, albeit long-term, might be to raise a new generation of morally enlightened corporate leaders.

Perhaps the protesters, many of them students, should stage sit-ins outside the business schools on their campuses, and target future bankers, traders, and political lobbyists.

There's a broad consensus, even across political parties, that faulty decision-making by the principle players on Wall Street and in Washington crashed global markets and devastated the lives of millions of ordinary people. The 2008 financial crisis shut down businesses, left millions jobless, and foreclosed homes.

So it's clear we need to rethink business as usual. But it should start with how business leaders are trained to view their roles, analyze risks, and understand the moral implications of strategic decisions.

Ethics courses have already been tacked onto many MBA programs, partly as antidotes to the infamous 2001 accounting scandals that brought down Enron and WorldCom, among others. As a 2006 executive MBA graduate, Craig took a required ethics course and covered the basics: bribes, harassment, and what to do if you suspect a contractor is using child labour.

Now that the U.S. is on the cusp of a double-dip recession, the actions of corporate leaders are not escaping scrutiny.

Business always has been, and always will be, about making money. But that doesn't mean business leaders shouldn't form an understanding of climate change, local and international labour laws and human rights, building a commitment to minimize harm while making profit.

Beyond a single ethics course, how about MBA field trips to Rust Belt towns -- communities effectively shut down along with local manufacturing hubs -- or to a street lined with bank-foreclosed homes for sale? Or the establishment of student groups offering pro bono business consults for non-profits and volunteer accounting sessions devoted to processing low-income tax returns?

Students can sign up for this last session at the University of Alberta.

It seems Canadian business schools are slowly adding socially responsible mandates to their course catalogue.

Concordia University students are even invited to take the MBA Oath, a corporate equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath, which has business grads vow to "refrain from corruption... or business practices harmful to society."

Transcendent Leadership is offered at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. It's designed to teach future business leaders to make strategic decisions that align with personal values. These values are refined through self-reflection and the study of core virtues: humanity, justice and courage, along with accounting and economics.

The course was developed after Ivey's researchers consulted 300 international business executives from private, public and non-profit sectors on the leadership implications of the 2008 global recession.
The resulting report, "Leadership on Trial," states that leaders with "good character," were those who admitted mistakes, humbly sought advice, and retained their personal integrity. They were also found to have led firms that fared better during the recession. A leader's strong value system, coupled with the ability to reflect on these values, as well as biases, fostered better internal communication and more transparency in dealings with outside stakeholders, according to the report's authors.

But Ivey's Transcendent Leadership is an elective course. According to a recent survey by Corporate Knights, a Canadian business magazine that promotes responsible business practices, our nation's business schools should move lessons in social responsibility to core coursework, support student-led initiatives and provide incentives for relevant internships.

York University's Schulich School of Business, Craig's alma mater, offers courses that emphasize the "triple bottom line:" social, environmental and economic issues. An MBA student-led business consulting group, for instance, integrates grad students from York's Environmental Studies program.

While the Occupy protesters rally on Bay Street in an attempt to oust the old guard, Canada's next generation of corporate leaders are developing responsible business ethics.

Good corporate citizenship is not the only answer, but it might help mitigate future damage. So that even if markets crash, we don't lapse into a morally bankrupt economy.

 

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