Many have blamed the global financial crisis at least partly on a failure of leadership.
It could be a question of leadership character, not just in terms of ethical decision-making, but "a quality of character that might lead to poor decision making, or a breach of character," says Professor Mary Crossan.
Dr. Crossan, the Taylor/Mingay Chair in Business Policy at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, teaches those leadership lessons gleaned from the financial crisis to graduate students.
Ivey's Transcendent Leadership course is billed as an examination of leadership across multiple levels: the organization, society, others and self, with emphasis on the level of self through character development in self-assessments, awareness of bias, and aligning personal values with strategic actions.
A report published by Dr. Crossan and her colleagues describes why character development needs to be injected into the current business climate. It describes a culture of distrust, and a general dislike and even disdain for corporate executives, where digital culture increases transparency, and high-profile, white-collar crimes like the Enron scandal reek of corporate greed and individual opportunism.
"There has been a tremendous focus on competency," Dr. Crossan explains. "We wanted to augment that typical focus with a focus on character - character is more in short supply than we might like."
The course was prompted by Leadership on Trial, a research initiative out of Ivey, where Dr. Crossan and colleagues held forums with senior business executives across the financial, public and private sectors to gauge the role that leadership failures played in the imploding global economy.
Key findings across all forums, she explains, surrounded leadership deficiencies, and in many cases, that meant the lack of a concrete definition for the term.
Without a clear notion of what constitutes great leadership, there was some initial skepticism as to whether those qualities could be captured and taught within the context of a business school.
It was a matter of turning character development into a curriculum.
In the course, it comprised six virtues, compiled from literature in the field of leadership study: wisdom, justice, temperance, humanity, courage and transcendence.
In the context of a business course, Dr. Crossan admits that some virtues seem more at odds with the traditional than others. While businesses have done a fair job promoting courage as persistence and integrity, and, to a lesser extent, justice in terms of fairness, she estimates, the virtue of temperance is "very problematic" for many leaders. "We don't often have a lot of humility. We often don't have prudence."
Forgiveness and an open mind are not concepts typically dealt out with MBAs, where competition between candidates starts with limited enrolment numbers, but Dr. Crossan draws a direct link between those qualities and management decisions.
Both relieve tension and facilitate conversation, which, for business organizations, she says, are the "atomic particles" that make for great decisions.
Corporate wisdom tends to be lacking - not from a knowledge deficit, but for narrow-mindedness, or the tendency to reinforce an established worldview. What is needed is a wisdom that embraces curiosity, she says.
But, "any virtue becomes a vice in excess," Dr. Crossan qualifies. Too much forgiveness makes for a pushover, and excessive curiosity breeds indecisiveness.
Julie Gosse is among the first 15 students to have completed the course, one she took with the inclination that "business leadership involves a stewardship over your own personal character," but without knowing what to expect.
"I come from an accounting background. There are rules. There's arithmetic. There isn't that in leadership," she says.
In groups, students led seminars surrounding each virtue. Ms. Gosse's team took courage
The students examined courage in academics and popular culture, discussed it in terms of brute heroics and social advocacy, and finally qualified it in terms of a "persistence horizon," akin to a comfort zone, which can be expanded with practice: quit smoking or give blood, anything that exceeds the persistence horizon.
"Courage is a muscle," says Prof. Crossan; it needs to flex and develop.
But what about the fact that executives generally aren't so much concerned with courage as they are with gaining a sustainable competitive edge in their industry, and with profit margins and keeping shareholders happy?
"The notion that we act in the best interest of the shareholder really elevated the shareholder to the standard that all organizations serve. It's a pretty simplified view of the world to say that what we need to do is maximize shareholder value," she says.
What the course aims to do, she adds, is expand that leadership worldview to include "virtue-based" decisions.
Organizations are part of an "ecosystem," she says, where leaders should posit their business as a profitable enterprise, but one that's part of a larger social fabric, and to align strategic decisions with those values.
Ms. Gosse is part of the next cohort of senior executives, and she doesn't believe an optimal business model has been achieved, one that would merge fiscal responsibility and ethical decision-making. But the course itself is cause for confidence: "We've institutionalized the idea that our leadership needs work."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: A previous version of this story had an incorrect spelling for Julie Gosse. This is a corrected version.