Chris Rank/Rank Studios 2019



The Imperative of Ethical Leadership in Business

In the realm of ethical leadership, few have embodied its tenets with the fervor and conviction of Bill McGowan. As the pioneering CEO of MCI, McGowan was not just a titan in the telecommunications industry; he was a vanguard of moral integrity. It is this enduring legacy that the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund seeks to perpetuate.

With a steadfast commitment to cultivating ethical leadership, the Fund stands as a beacon for both the current and next generation of business leaders. The McGowan Principles of Ethical Leadership are more than just lofty ideals; they are a confluence of moral rectitude and shrewd business acumen. This synthesis has not only validated the moral imperative of these principles but has also underscored their indispensability in the landscape of pragmatic business strategy.

Upholding its steadfast dedication to ethical leadership as a cornerstone of American business, the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund has, over the past 14 years, made substantial investments in fostering the next generation of principled business leaders. This commitment has materialized in the form of the McGowan Fellows Program, a collaboration with ten distinguished universities. The program meticulously selects an outstanding MBA student from each partner institution, offering them a comprehensive immersion into the complexities of ethical decision-making. The impact of this program extends far beyond the individual Fellows. It has ignited a wave of enthusiasm and a deeper appreciation for ethical business practices among MBA students nationwide, fostering a new cadre of business leaders equipped not only with acumen but with a firm moral compass.

As just one example reflecting the interest and enthusiasm of students across the country for learning about ethics and ethical leadership, when Colorado State University offered a couple of courses on ethics and ethical leadership to the entire student body (not just those in the Business School), well over 1,000 students enrolled with no advertising, no promotion, and no effort to recruit them. They just wanted to take those courses.

In a definitive shift towards prioritizing integrity in the corporate world, Korn Ferry, the premier executive search firm in the United States, has observed a significant trend: corporate search committees are increasingly prioritizing demonstrable ethics and ethical leadership as key criteria in their hunt for exceptional new talent. This evolution in hiring practices underscores the growing recognition of ethical leadership as a vital attribute in top-tier candidates. Furthermore, this trend is not unidirectional. Prospective candidates are mirroring this scrutiny, posing incisive questions about the ethical standards and leadership practices of their potential employers. This mutual emphasis on ethics marks a pivotal moment in the business landscape, signaling a collective move towards a more ethically conscious corporate ethos.

In a bid to honor and celebrate national business leaders exemplifying ethical leadership, we inaugurated the Ethical Leader of the Year Award. Launched two years ago, this prestigious accolade annually recognizes a Chief Executive Officer whose unwavering commitment to ethics and ethical leadership has not only set a benchmark in corporate integrity but has also significantly contributed to the growth and success of their organization. To amplify the impact of this award, we have allied with the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). SHRM, an esteemed organization representing the architects and custodians of corporate culture – human resource professionals – has been a steadfast proponent of ethics and ethical leadership as the cornerstone of a thriving corporate environment. This synergy with SHRM enhances the award’s significance, aligning two entities dedicated to fostering a business landscape where ethical leadership is not just aspirational but foundational.

In 2022, with the first Ethical Leader of the Year Award, we recognized Charles Lowrey, the longstanding Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Prudential Financial, for his decades of remarkable ethical leadership. The award was presented in front of over 18,000 human resource professionals at their annual gathering in New Orleans.

Last year, at SHRM’s 75th Anniversary celebration, in front of over 20,000 participants in Las Vegas, the McGowan Fund recognized Ed Bastian, the Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Delta Airlines, who has also demonstrated what we believe is the nation’s idea of true ethical leadership.

Both of these Fortune 500 CEOs stressed their conviction, based on example after example they cited that ethics and ethical leadership were both challenging to achieve and maintain but, in their view, had made a decisive difference in weathering the enormous economic, COVID, and business challenges over the past several years.

We are now seeking recommendations from readers for Chief Executive Officers of leading companies who, in your experience, have demonstrated genuine ethics and ethical leadership to be considered for the 2024 award. The award will once again be presented at the SHRM National Conference in Chicago in June.

Looking ahead, it is our great hope that MBA programs will listen carefully to the market: incoming and current students are seeking greater opportunities for real engagement and immersion in learning the principles of ethics and ethical leadership. Corporate directors, search committees, and hiring leaders are increasingly requiring that candidates demonstrate ethics and ethical leadership. We believe this matter has become key in the selection of the next generation of leaders and will continue to do so.

The McGowan Fund, armed with 14 years of invaluable experience in ethical education, is primed to offer MBA leaders comprehensive insights into the most effective methods of teaching ethical decision-making. This expertise is not merely theoretical; it is rooted in a rich history of successful partnerships with MBA programs. Over these 14 years, the Fund has accumulated a wealth of evidence demonstrating the impactful outcomes of this approach.

Indeed, the embrace of ethics and ethical leadership in the business education sphere marks a significant epoch. It is a concept that has not only arrived but has firmly established itself as an indispensable element of contemporary corporate and educational landscapes.