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Swellboy on… oaths and MBAs

Railing against the rise of corporate voodoo

Swellboy on… oaths and MBAs

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 25 2010
Nick Foulkes

I am wary of situations and organisations that demand an oath of allegiance and loyalty. Pledges of undying obedience and whatnot have a habit of forming a part of the machinery of paramilitary organisations, secret societies and so forth. In fact I regard being asked to take an oath as faintly barbaric, mildly superstitious and slightly sinister. I do not pretend to understand the psychological backstory to oath-taking; I suppose it is all about shared responsibility, the abdication of personal choice and the first step to brainwashing. From taking an oath it is but a short step to performing unsavoury induction rituals, human sacrifice, etc, all justified of course by the ultimate get-out clause so beloved of oath-takers: “I was only obeying orders.”

From my point of view, personal morality is derived from within rather than received in pre-packaged form from some bogus verbal nonsense dressed up in vaguely antiquated language.

You might ask what has prompted such fulguration. Well, even if you are not going to ask, I am going to tell you. I have just learned that a group of Harvard Business School students have written an MBA oath. “As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good,” it solemnly intones, “by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone.”

There is plenty more of this sanctimonious claptrap about value-creation, far-reaching consequences, and so on. And yet, for all the doubtless good intentions, this is an argument that could have been used by the chaps who, serving what they saw as the greater good (of the Holy League in the 16th century), used their management tools (usually a whip) to bring together the people (galley slaves) and the resources (oars) that propelled the galleys of the Catholic coalition forces that defeated the Ottoman Empire at the battle of Lepanto. A specious interpretation, I know, but you get my point.

For all I know, when taking this oath they are asked to place their hand on a PowerPoint presentation or a freshly printed spreadsheet while swearing undying loyalty to the gods of business administration. I wonder if I am alone in finding such corporate voodoo utterly ridiculous.

I daresay it is a sign of my age, but I regard the teaching of management as a discipline of its own as encouraging the growth of a parasitic class, who roost, cuckoo-like, amid the work done by others. I once worked with a professionally trained manager and it was infuriating: he seemed to think that by setting targets, establishing goals and distributing what he called “control documents”, he was actually doing something.

MBAers may whinge that theirs is a vocation less valued than the ancient and dignified bourgeois callings of law, accountancy, medicine and quantity surveying. Well, maybe they haven’t noticed, but all these other professions carry out useful work: lawyers give employment to the wig trade and get to stand up in court and say “Objection M’lud”; accountants add things up and battle valiantly with HM Revenue & Customs; doctors cure the sick and raise the dead; and quantity surveyors… well… they survey quantities, and without their input neither the pyramids nor the Great Wall of China, nor indeed Stonehenge would have been built to such high standards – although Stonehenge is a little too close to the main road for my liking. How can these heroic achievements be equated with the management tricks of passing the buck, while operating two BlackBerries?

However, there are compensations; I hear that one business school presents its graduates with a ring reminding them of their responsibility to act with integrity. I am all for a bit of business-school bling.

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