Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Mischaracterization of Harvard Business School

When Vanity Fair ran its recent piece, “The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg” by Duff McDonald, a number of friends sent me links to the piece, asking for my reactions to his criticisms of her and my alma mater, Harvard Business School, which he described as producing “corporate monsters” who “lack a functional moral compass”. I have always been quite open about and proud of my time at school (for a while, when I had more time, I even ran a blog called “Ask The Harvard MBA”) so I resolved to read the article with an open mind and then offer my reactions.

After reading the article and revisiting some of my experiences at HBS (more on this later), my conclusion is that McDonald mischaracterizes and misinterprets both the general approach of the case study method, and the specific case of “The Parable of the Sadhu”. It is certainly possible and probably valuable to write a thoughtful critique of how Harvard Business School influences the moral compass and ethical practices of its alumni. This isn't it. Whether McDonald's misinterpretation is genuine or malicious, I cannot say, but it is definitely shoddy journalism.

There are many parts of the piece that illustrate McDonald's biased view of Harvard Business School's attempts to help its students engage with ethics, but one of the clearest appears in his discussion of “The Parable of the Sadhu”. Here is what McDonald writes about this famous ethics essay (which is also used by organizations such as the Red Cross):

“McCoy was on a trip to the Himalayas when his expedition encountered a sadhu, or holy man, near death from hypothermia and exposure. Their compassion extended only to clothing the man and leaving him in the sun, before continuing on to the summit. One of McCoy’s group saw a “breakdown between the individual ethic and the group ethic,” and was gripped by guilt that the climbers had not made absolutely sure that the sadhu made it down the mountain alive. McCoy’s response: “Here we are . . . at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. . . . What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?”

McCoy later felt guilt over the incident, but his parable nevertheless illustrated the extent to which aspiring managers might justify putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage—including the life of a dying man. The fact that H.B.S. enthusiastically incorporated said parable into its curriculum says far more about the fundamental mindset of the school than almost anything else that has come out of it. The “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.”

“The Parable of the Sadhu” was part of the curriculum during my time as well, but I believe that McDonald misinterprets the teaching goal of the case. His misinterpretation deviates so far from the actual words of the essay that I believe that it is quite possible that McDonald never bothered to read the very text that he places at the center of his argument, which would represent irresponsible clickbait journalism.

McCoy wrote his essay to illustrate the importance of having a moral compass, since moral dilemmas can present themselves unexpectedly, and in conjunction with a variety of conflicting imperatives.

First, the way McCoy encounters the sadhu is that a group of four backpackers from New Zealand finds the holy man lying on the ice, then carries him back and dump him on McCoy's expedition, arguing that since his expedition has porters and Sherpas, they are better able to care for the invalid. The New Zealanders then press on. McCoy's expedition clothes the sadhu, and McCoy, worried about his history of altitude sickness, hikes on ahead, leaving a friend and a Sherpa to deal with the sadhu. He learns later that after a Japanese expedition refused to lend their horse to transport the sadhu, and after the Sherpa guide decided that the porters didn't have time to transport the sadhu all the way to safety and catch up with the rest of the expedition before the snows melted and made the path impassable, that the porters had carried the sadhu as far as they though prudent (within 500 feet of a shelter hut) and left him there, now conscious, clothed, and with food and drink.

Already, we can see that this is a more complex question than McDonald relates, and that McDonald minimizes the actual help provided. But the real difference is that McCoy devotes the majority of the essay to examining the moral failings that led to the potential death of the sadhu, rather than “justifying putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage.”

McCoy actually writes about the dilemma from a variety of ethical lenses, which leads him to conclude the opposite of what McDonald ascribes to him. For example, McCoy writes:

“Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous, and many of us hike right through them, unaware that they exist. When, usually after the fact, someone makes an issue of one, we tend to resent his or her bringing it up. Often, when the full import of what we have done (or not done) hits us, we dig into a defensive position from which it is very difficult to emerge. In rare circumstances, we may contemplate what we have done from inside a prison.”

Are these the words of a man trying to justify his decision based on personal accomplishment? Or of a man trying to get MBA students to realize that failing to consider the moral implications of their actions can lead to severe consequences?

McDonald's approach is to cherry pick a few passages to support his argument, rather than fairly representing the text which he criticizes. McCoy's argument is that ethical dilemmas present hard choices, can come at any time, and that if you're not prepared to engage with them, you may end up making decisions without realizing it, or that when individuals in a group refuse to take personal responsibility, the entire group may end up shirking theirs.

In fact, McCoy even explicitly states the point of his essay in its conclusion:

“That is the lesson of the sadhu. In a complex corporate situation, the individual requires and deserves the support of the group. When people cannot find such support in their organizations, they don't know how to act. If such support is forthcoming, a person has a stake in the success of the group and can add much to the process of establishing and maintaining a corporate culture. Management's challenge is to be sensitive to individual needs, to shape them, and to direct and focus them for the benefit of the group as a whole.”

I find it hard to square what I see as the meaning of McCoy's words with McDonald's interpretation, which is that “the “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.”

In contrast, I interpret McCoy's words as saying that businesses and leaders have a moral obligation to support individual employees, rather than pushing all moral responsibility to the individual level. That may indicate that the individual isn't solely responsible or at fault, but that is the opposite of saying that there is no right answer, and that all choices are morally equivalent.

Indeed, had McDonald actually read “The Parable of the Sadhu,” he might have been able to use its teachings to illuminate and underscore Facebook's ethical failures in a fairer and more convincing way.

If you asked me how Harvard Business School influences the ethics and moral compass of its students, I would answer that it tries to get them to grapple with different situations and ways of thinking in an attempt to help them be more explicit and thoughtful about those ethics, but that it doesn't try to prescribe a single way of thinking or tell you the right answer. In that sense, it is no different than any other great college or university. Sometimes, its graduates leave as ethical paragons with high-performing moral compasses. Sometimes, its graduates go on to infamy, like Jeff Skilling. McDonald's own alma mater is the University of Pennsylvania, from which he earned a Finance degree, a distinction that he now shares with President Donald Trump.