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What Should We Teach Our Business Leaders?

Nitin Nohria: Business leaders often suffer from what I call “moral overconfidence,” or an inflated sense of their strength of character. So moral humility may be the most important thing we can teach them. Many people view “character” as an immutable trait formed during childhood and adolescence. I believe character development is similar to the development of knowledge or wisdom—it’s a lifelong process. The world isn’t neatly divided into good people and bad people. Most will behave well or poorly, depending on the context.

Experiments dating to the 1950s illustrate this. We discuss these at Harvard Business School in a required course called “Leadership and Corporate Accountability.” Nearly 60 percent of a group of Princeton divinity students, despite just having heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, declined to help an apparently injured man while walking across campus because they were asked to hurry to deliver a sermon—on the Good Samaritan parable. In a Yale experiment, nearly two-thirds of subjects acting as teachers administered excessive electric shock (or thought they were doing so) to actors playing students who made mistakes. At Stanford, students acting as jail guards quickly began to behave abusively toward a group of “prisoners.”