Williamson Family Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Business Law
University of Michigan
In a November 2019 message to members of the American Association of Law Schools’ Section on Leadership, Chair Leah W. Teague noted that over 85 law schools “have at least one leadership development program, course or designation for their students.” And in a March 2020 report, she noted that the Section on Leadership’s program was among the top ten programs in terms of attendance at the recent AALS annual meeting.
Despite their increasing popularity, leadership development initiatives face challenges. In the new Section on Leadership’s first newsletter (November 2018), then-Chair Deborah Rhode mentioned objections from colleagues who feel that the subject is “squishy.” She responded by observing that while leadership courses might seem “touchy feely” when compared with traditional doctrinal courses, research shows that “effective leadership requires so-called ‘soft skills,’ particularly those demanding personal and interpersonal skills such as self-awareness and emotional intelligence.” In addition to objections from some colleagues about the subject matter, another challenge faced by instructors teaching these courses is that soft skills are especially difficult to teach in law school. As Professor Rhode commented, for many lawyers and law students, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.”
Beyond concerns from colleagues about squishy material and the challenges in teaching soft skills, courses on leadership for lawyers raise additional questions. Should these courses include analytical skills that relate to the leadership responsibilities of a lawyer? And if so, what framework is appropriate for teaching these responsibilities?
The answer to the first question might depend on the response to the second question—that is, the decision whether to include leadership responsibilities might depend on the nature and quality of the models available for teaching these responsibilities. The next two sections, adapted from Chapter 1 in Strategy, Law, and Ethics for Business Decisions (C. Ladwig & G. Siedel, West Academic Publishing, 2020), describe two models for teaching leadership responsibilities.
The first model, used in the Harvard Business School (HBS) required MBA course on leadership, is based on the intersection of economics, law, and ethics (which I call the “Three Pillars”). I first learned about this model when, as a visiting professor at HBS, I served on the teaching committee for a required module that evolved into the leadership course. The HBS model is especially useful when exercising leadership responsibilities in a business environment. The second model described below replaces the Economics Pillar in the HBS model with a Strategy Pillar. This broader framework is useful to leaders not only in a business setting but also when they make decisions focusing on political issues or within non-profit organizations.
The Harvard Business School Leadership Course
The HBS course required course on leadership, titled Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA), focuses on the three key elements—economics, law, and ethics—that form the foundation for decision making by business leaders. As described in an online version of the course syllabus, a business leader’s responsibilities “fall into three broad categories: economic, legal, and ethical. Economic responsibilities relate to resource allocation and wealth creation; legal responsibilities flow from formal laws and regulations; and ethical responsibilities have to do with basic principles and standards of conduct.”
The HBS course design mirrors research on a tripartite framework for leadership decision making and focuses on key stakeholders. As the syllabus notes, “Using the tripartite framework of economics, law, and ethics, we will consider decisions that involve responsibilities to each of the company’s core constituencies—investors, customers, employees, suppliers, and the public.” Like other courses at HBS, LCA is not static and continues to evolve to reflect new issues and challenges. The syllabus describes the types of issues addressed in the course that relate to the constituencies. Many of these issues raise legal concerns, such as fiduciary duties, conflicts of interest, fraud, discrimination, environmental responsibilities, privacy, and property rights.
The course is especially challenging and important for future leaders because it takes students into what the syllabus calls the real-world “grey areas” where decision making is shaped by the Economics, Law, and Ethics Pillars. The overlap of the three pillars is depicted by this diagram from a course overview that is distributed to students.