Cultivating Ethical Business Leaders: Building on the Lutheran Liberal-Arts Tradition

May 3rd, 2019 | Category: Research in Education
By Claudia Santin and Kathryn Hollywood


The role of ethics and social responsibility as part of a business or leadership curriculum is widely discussed, especially how these two concepts relate to decision making in the global context of business. Santin and Bucchi (2016) discussed the importance of embedding ethics and social responsibility in Concordia University Chicago’s (CUC) MBA curriculum. Their investigation supported a comprehensive MBA program review that was undertaken in 2014. This review indicated that a more robust focus on developing business leaders who think and act ethically was needed. This robust focus is aligned with the CUC business programs’ goal to cultivate leaders who engage in thoughtful inquiry and promote socially responsible business practice grounded in Christian faith (About the College of Business, 2018).

This business-program goal is aligned with Lutheran teaching of the two kingdoms. Brubaker (2003) cited Jodock (1999) “Although the characteristics of a college related to the Lutheran tradition are not themselves distinctive, their grounding is (para. 13). Brubaker continued by noting that “characteristic of serving the community and educating its leaders is grounded in the Lutheran teaching of the “two kingdoms” or “two governances” (para.13). According to Brubaker, interpreting Jodock, “the first governance is rooted in the Gospel (God’s mercy and forgiveness) and the goal is personal reconciliation” (para.13). The goal of the second governance is “to bring order and justice to the world” (para.13). Lutheran higher education is focused primarily on the second governance. Jodock (1999, as cited in Brubaker, 2003) noted, “Its [college education] purpose is to enable young men and women to discern what makes for justice and what preserves and enhances human dignity” (para.13). The CUC business program embraces this focus as its ideal, dovetailing the liberal arts curriculum with its business curriculum. This interwoven curriculum highlights community, social responsibility, the common good, vocation, and purpose beyond self-interest and self-promotion.


An added value of the business program at Concordia University Chicago, steeped in the rich tradition of a Christ-centered, liberal-arts education, is the combination of globally recognized, U.S. liberal-arts learning with the rich Lutheran education tradition. This tradition invites students to question how they will contribute to the common good and enrich those whom they will serve through their chosen vocation. Luther emphasized that one is called to live his or her life in relationship to others. Christenson (2011) asked not whether you are doing something religious, but whether you are serving the needs of your neighbor. Thus, it is the responsibility of the College of Business (CoB) to craft a curriculum that is the best combination of the liberal arts, with ethical business practice to promote the development of a service mindset.

To assess the effectiveness of the CoB curriculum business programs, in the fall of 2014, the CoB began the MBA program review process. One component of this review was a survey of MBA alumni (CoB MBA survey, 2015, February 18). One question in the survey focused on the role of ethics and social responsibility within the curriculum, and asked students if they were satisfied with their exposure to ethics and social responsibility within their program of study. Overall, graduates reported they were pleased with the attention to the subject of ethics within their program. Students commented that the CoB could provide even more discussion and inclusion of the role of ethics in business and the need for students becoming socially-responsible business leaders. One of the comments that captured faculty members’ attention and prompted further discussion was, “I thought the course in ethics was excellent, as it gave me perspective on ethical decision making. I would have liked to discuss ethics in all of my courses as it touches everything leaders do…” This particular comment and other feedback gained from the survey, coupled with the research literature, provided strong evidence for revising the MBA curriculum. The faculty will begin the second, three-year cycle of MBA program review in January 2019.

In 2017, another feedback opportunity was initiated. The Dean of the CoB invited students to join the newly formed Dean’s Student Advisory Committee (DSAC). The purpose of this committee is to provide a forum for students to share ideas and feedback regarding curriculum and their co-curricular experience. Students are encouraged to ask big questions as they seek their own vocations within the world of business. The students meet with the Dean during the academic year. Feedback obtained becomes part of the continuous improvement process and contributes to the comprehensive program review agenda. Throughout 2017 and 2018, much discussion in DSAC focused on the undergraduate curriculum as the program review process was scheduled to begin spring 2018. Students were asked to consider what new majors should be considered; what courses were the most popular and why; what knowledge and skills they wanted to learn; and what business concepts they felt were most compelling and what were the strengths of the program. Essentially, the students are encouraged, as Luther stressed, to question the status quo!

Students suggested that their business and liberal-arts learning should be woven together to prepare them for their life of social contribution, personal growth, and professional fulfillment. Students felt that they needed to be prepared to handle “big decisions” that impacted them and others when they graduated and entered the workforce. They spoke about how they grew intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually during their four years. They discussed how they wanted their learning to be interconnected and that they wanted faculty to help them make these connections, especially as they questioned how to making the “right” decisions. They wanted to examine the big questions of “why?”. For instance, one student asked, “Why did the misconduct at Enron, Tyco, Quest, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom happen? Shouldn’t we be discussing how people allowed unethical practices…?” This process of inquiry aligns with one of the core elements of Lutheran higher education regarding developing the capacity to question without censure so that service and care for others is linked to thoughtful inquiry. The CoB sent out a follow up alumni survey in late 2018. Feedback is still being analyzed and will add to knowledge gained from the 2015 survey and the DSAC meetings, and from input gained from the CoB’s Business Advisory Committee (BAC). As stated previously, the CoB has the responsibility to develop and provide a curriculum of study that is an effective blend of the liberal arts, ethical business practices, and the Lutheran higher education tradition. Gaining feedback from stakeholders is essential in this process.


CUC’s CoB requires students to take classes such as accounting, finance, marketing, ethics, and economics because students need to be competent in these subjects to succeed in the world of business. How might students weave together the knowledge gained in these subjects so they learn how to more ethically serve society and develop a more Christ-like character? de los Reyes, Kim, and Weaver (2017) claimed, “business schools and universities have an indispensable role to play in helping to fulfill the objective of the business ethics course” (p. 331). They pose the question regarding not only what to teach in a business ethics course but to do so whether “inside or outside conventional classrooms” (p. 333) and potentially across curriculum and co-curricular activities. Business employers support the need for a college degree (AAC&U, 2018), which crosses disciplines as the most effective preparation for long-term career success. Among the desired skills are oral and written communication ability, critical thinking, and ethical judgment. In a joint statement made by AAC&U and AAUP (Bauer-Wolf, 2018), the benefit of a liberal education was heralded, “The disciplines of the liberal arts…are exemplary…they foster intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled – questions about justice, about community…” (para.11). Despite controversy regarding the value of a liberal arts education, employers and society realize that value.

The recent decades of controversy regarding ethical breaches within business provided even further support for embedding ethics throughout the curriculum. The media have highlighted the negative challenges and dilemmas surrounding business ethics. While most companies handle their social responsibility with an uncompromising sense of professionalism, some companies do not. It is common knowledge that acting ethically is important and that business leaders have a societal responsibility to promote the common good. In order to remain competitive, many companies “continue to seek the help of business schools in redefining what it means to be socially responsible, and teaching students to have a socially responsible mindset with decision-making skills that look beyond short-term benefits” (Vallario, 2010, p. 52). Many organizations and companies are realizing the financial and public relations value of creating and promoting an ethical workplace.

Christensen, Peirce, Hartman, Hoffman, and Carrier (2007) noted that researchers and administrators debate the role of teaching such subjects as ethics, social responsibility, and corporate sustainability as part of a program of study. ten Have (2015) emphasized, “If teaching ethics merely enhances their knowledge and skills, but lacks any impact on their later professional behavior and decisions, it fails to achieve its main goal” (p. 176). Perhaps the answer lies in how ethics is taught. According to AACSB (2004), “Although ethics education is vital, it is unrealistic to expect that it can, with a single stroke, negate the likelihood of management wrongdoing” (p. 13). When restricted to only one course, the importance of ethics and social responsibility loses impact. If not in a business program of study, where should ethics and social responsibility in business be taught? Business colleges are the learning environments for individuals to ascend into leadership positions to hone their business and leadership skills. Therefore, by strengthening the ethical component of each course within the curriculum, building upon students’ liberal-arts foundation, future leaders would be exposed to multiple lenses of ethical, socially responsible decision-making. This approach may increase the potential for creating an ethical-leader mindset. The ethical mindset is catalytic to creating an ethical workplace where ethical decision-making is the norm.

The onus of responsibility of creating an ethical organization falls on the shoulders of its leaders. According to the Ethics Resource Center’s 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey, when organizations prioritize integrity, employees are:

  • Less likely to feel pressure to violate ethics standards;
  • Less likely to observe misconduct;
  • More likely to report misconduct they observe; and,
  • Less likely to experience retaliation for reporting.

The strength of a company’s ethical culture influences workplace conduct. This report sends a mandate to leaders to be committed to a high standard of integrity and ethical decision-making.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust in government, media, businesses and NGOs, showed strong levels of employee trust that their employers do what is right, with a global average of 72%. This show of faith comes with new expectations; building trust (69%) is now the No. 1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68%). Promoting ethical practice can mean the difference between sustainable organizational growth and an unstable, unhealthy, and unproductive work environment.

There are various theories related to ethical decision-making and behavior within organizations; i.e., legitimacy theory, theory of planned behavior, and stakeholder theory. There are corporate codes of ethics which have gained favor (Stohl, Stohl, & Popova, 2009). There is literature promoting the creation of ethical workplace climates and cultures (Wulfson, 1998). However, what appears to be lacking is practical knowledge on how to create business curricula that encompass these concepts and model to students how to apply their knowledge with effective skills and a comprehensive ethical mindset. Educators question if students know what is the most effective way to create management systems to promote ethical and socially responsible behavior within organizations. Perhaps a good starting place is assisting students to understand how to embed ethical and socially responsible decision-making in their daily practice and then to infuse this decision-making process into the very fiber of their organization’s culture.

A 2008 survey by the Aspen Institute surveyed MBA students in 15 programs over the course of five years about their attitudes toward the relationship between business and society. The results showed an increase over these five years in students’ desires to have their careers make a contribution to society. In addition, the results also indicated a decrease in the belief that a person’s primary contribution and responsibility was shareholder value. This survey also revealed that most MBA programs struggled to understand how to prepare future ethical leaders.

Business educators question how to make ethical behavior a part of a leader’s DNA. Can this behavior be instilled with one course, one lecture? Building ethical, socially responsible leaders who create ethical and socially responsible organizational cultures is not a one-stop proposition. Simply teaching students the business common body of knowledge is an insufficient approach. Preparing socially responsible business leaders requires that ethics and corporate responsibility be woven throughout the students’ program of study. This approach is keenly aligned to the core principles of Lutheran higher education.

The discussion of ethics can no longer be U.S. centric, but should have a global perspective integrated in all business courses (Trevino & Nelson, 2011). As part of the program review process, the faculty members engaged in “thoughtful inquiry.” They asked, “What should faculty be doing to embed ethical and socially-responsible decision making into students’ worldview?” Faculty explored, “How does the CoB curriculum prepare students to understand the impact of their actions in an increasingly globally-interconnected world?” How does the curriculum speak to the mission of the College? The Mission of the College of Business (Concordia University Chicago, 2018) is:

To develop ethical leaders who think critically, communicate effectively, and promote socially responsible business practice that is grounded in Christian faith, and is innovative, and entrepreneurial in spirit. We strive to prepare students who positively impact the global society they serve through an academically rigorous and relevant business education.

After much discussion, and deepening of the dialogue regarding the current content and focus of the MBA program, the graduate faculty decided that the MBA curriculum did not emphasize a worldview of ethics and social responsibility. The curriculum was therefore revised and effectively aligned to the College’s mission, and also to its value statement:

As part of a university that values Christian faith, the individual, excellence, integrity, and service, the College of Business values our Lutheran heritage of teaching excellence, leading by serving, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, ethical decision making, intellectual and individual diversity and sustaining a dynamic curriculum based on the needs of our students, community, and stakeholders.

The alignment of the mission and the value statement with the program goals and outcomes also fulfilled the objectives of the CoB’s Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan includes developing a framework to evaluate ethical issues in business, and initiating innovative programs that support the College’s globalization efforts, and the internationalization of the student body.

Ryan and Bisson (2011) emphasized that “strategic goals and objectives must be first identified within the curricula” (p. 46). Citing Felton and Sims (2005), Ryan and Bisson highlighted goals when teaching business ethics, stating:

  1. Assist students in the formation of their personal values and moral ideas,
  2. Introduce them to the broad range of moral problems facing their society and world,
  3. Provide them contact with important ethical theories and moral traditions, and
  4. Give them the opportunity to wrestle with problems of applied business ethics, whether personal or professional. (p. 388)

A curriculum that exposes students to business ethics should help them understand that all business decisions involve ethical decision-making. Students must come to understand how their own biases and cultural perspective influence their decisions and, in turn, the greater society.

The CoB faculty (fulltime and part time) who are revising the undergraduate core curriculum are aligning it to Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) standards and ensuring that the curriculum adds the Common Professional Components (CPCs), which help ensure that business programs understand and address the interdisciplinary nature of business. One of the Common Professional Components is Business Ethics. According to Cripps, Clark, and Oedekoven (2011), “The explanation of the CPC process incorporates the need to integrate functional areas of business with the business environment, the technical skills of the business employees…within an ethical context” (p. 2). The faculty who are designing the undergraduate curriculum believe that Felton and Sims’ (as cited in Ryan & Bisson, 2011) goals and objectives for teaching business ethics which were used for the creation of the new MBA program, apply to the undergraduate core-curriculum revision. Further, the faculty added a fifth goal (also added to the MBA during the revision process): Shift the students from the narrow view of business purpose (maximizing value for shareholders) to a broader, innovative view that is also socially responsible. The faculty agreed that a strong emphasis should be placed on the program’s second goal as it related to introducing students to a broad range of moral problems facing their society and the world. With the internationalization of the CoB student body, there needs to be more significant focus on discussing ethics and social responsibility in a global context. Faculty also wanted the opportunity to create and innovate, testing approaches to teaching ethics within the different courses. The faculty identified the creation of a more ethically integrated curriculum of study as the end goal.

Implications and Conclusion

The implications, from this review, are that Lutheran business schools should continue to examine not only how they teach ethics and social responsibility, but also how they prepare students to critically assess and evaluate what they learn. Course learning involves developing the ability and capacity to question business practice in a global and ethical context. Learning how to recognize and resolve ethical issues, which are elements of every business decision, is a first step for students in making informed and socially responsible choices and decisions based on the tenets learned in their undergraduate and graduate experiences. The primary lesson learned from the program review process (MBA and undergraduate, as well as the creation of the Doctorate in Business Administration), is that the development of new courses and revision of syllabi is one in which business is inextricably linked with broader ethical and social issues, not only within the local community but on a more global scale. Making informed ethical decisions requires a “trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a practice method of exploring the ethical aspects of a decision” (Markula Center for Applied Ethics: 2018, para. 14). Finally, Lutheran institutions of higher education may want to capitalize upon their liberal-arts tradition, finding innovative ways in which to embed ethics in a cross-disciplinary manner not only in the business and leadership programs but also throughout the curricula and co-curricular experience. LEJ


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Dr. Claudia Santin is Dean of the College of Business at Concordia-Chicago with extensive higher education experience encompassing service as a university president, provost, and academic vice president. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s from the College of New Jersey and doctorate in higher education leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Her research, teaching, and consulting have focused on leadership, innovation in higher education, strategic positioning and visioning, mentoring, systems thinking, and developing human capital. Dr. Santin pursues ongoing professional development as well as maintains a consistent schedule of conference presentation and publication. She has received awards for excellence in teaching and has earned certificates and post-master’s credits in online teaching and learning, corporate strategy, and marketing management.

Dr. Kathryn Hollywood teaches graduate level leadership courses at Concordia University Chicago. Prior to her work at Concordia, Dr. Hollywood served as an online adjunct professor at several universities and has gained experience with academic e-learning platforms. Additionally, she was the Dean of the School of Education at Northcentral University and Program Director for Nova Southeastern University’s Fischler Graduate School of Education. At both universities she served as dissertation chair. She was also a consultant for Panasonic Foundation.