Mary C. Gentile on Ethical Leadership: Asking the Wrong Questions

Mary C. Gentile, credit Marcia Dolgin

Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D., author of Giving Voice to Values and developer of the GVV curriculum at Babson College, writes on the current state of business education and proposes how a change in perspective can be used to fill the missing gaps facing the integration of ethical messages with business practices. Drawing on both the actual experience of business practitioners as well as cutting edge social science and management research, GVV helps students identify the many ways that individuals can and do voice their values in the workplace, and it provides the opportunity to script and practice this voice in front of their peers. The GVV curriculum has been used successfully in MBA, executive education and undergraduate settings and is now being adapted for use in legal education, engineering education, medical education, Liberal Arts, and increasingly in corporate training as well. GVV is now being piloted in well over 145 educational and executive settings on six continents.

Mary C. Gentile—

It is difficult to read the paper or scan the latest news on the internet or the network television without hearing of yet another challenge to business practices that is, at least in part, due to a failure of ethical leadership.

Responses to these sobering events – irresponsible lending tactics, deceptive marketing campaigns, distorted earnings reporting, disregard for environmental impacts of manufacturing practices, etc. – can range from anger to despair to cynicism. But thankfully, there are also those who respond by saying “Let’s address these problems. Let’s try to fix them.”

The cynical voices will say “Why bother? Many have tried and many have failed.” I would venture to suggest that perhaps the reason for some of this failure is due neither to a lack of commitment nor a lack of intelligence, or even the size of the challenge, but rather to the fact that often we are asking the wrong questions and are therefore doomed to arrive at less than useful answers.

For example, over and over again, when educators, corporate leaders, policy makers and even the media have set an agenda for developing more ethical business leaders, they begin with the question: “How can we motivate, influence or coerce managers to behave ethically?”

This question begins from the premise that most of us need to be motivated, influenced or coerced. This of course may be true in some cases. But by definition, it puts the educator, trainer, policy maker or reporter into the role of scold, preacher or police – roles that are often uncomfortable or even adversarial – and therefore trigger resistance.

What if, instead, we asked the question “How can we get the right thing done, once we know what it is?” This question springs from the premise that there are many of us who would actually like to behave ethically if we felt it was possible to do so effectively. Beginning from that position, the role of the educator and the policy maker becomes one of empowerment, facilitation, inspiration and skill-building.

Instead of framing ethical leadership development as the realm of “thou shalt not,” it becomes the domain of creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial and “can do” thinking. Rather than being entirely about restraint, ethical leadership becomes about action. Rather than focusing upon blocking unethical impulses, we focus upon building the “moral muscle memory” – making ethical behavior the default position, by means of practice and peer coaching.

This simple reframing of ethical leadership development has powerful implications and is at the heart of my new way of teaching: “Giving Voice To Values” (GVV). Rather than focusing solely or primarily upon communicating the rules for ethical leadership, this approach goes further and provides tools, arguments and most importantly, the opportunity to REHEARSE, ethical and values-driven leadership behaviors.

Most people want to bring their whole selves to work. Yet, experience and research demonstrate that values conflicts will occur during the course of a person’s career—those times when what we believe and want to accomplish seems in opposition to the demands of clients, peers, bosses and/or organizations. Focused on emerging leaders in the corporate sector, GVV helps people build and practice the understanding and skills they need to recognize, speak and act on their values when these conflicts arise. This innovative approach identifies the many ways that individuals can – and do – voice their values in the workplace and provides opportunities to build the muscles necessary to do so.


Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D. is director of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum and senior research scholar at Babson College. A veteran of Harvard Business School and pioneer in both ethics and diversity management curriculum, Gentile consults globally on management education and values-driven leadership.  You can learn more about her book at

GVV is funded by Babson College, and was developed with The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program as incubator and as founding partner along with the Yale School of Management.

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