The Loyola University Graduate School of Business has new billboards around town that read, “We educate values-based leaders.”
As timely as the tagline is in this era of Enron/Tyco corporate scandal, it raises one question: What exactly is a values-based leader?
“Most business schools do an effective job educating students about the technical aspects of business—debits, credits, accounting, supply and demand curves, and so on,” said Robert Parkinson Jr., dean of Loyola’s Graduate School of Business and former president of Abbott Laboratories.
“I’m not sure if business schools do as effective a job of training leaders in the broader context of ethical and socially responsible behavior.”
To describe this goal, Loyola, a Jesuit university, chose “values-based leaders” over “responsible leaders”—which was considered too broad—and “ethical leaders”—too narrow—Parkinson said. The school is counting on common interpretations of the word “values” to get the message across.
“There’s a moral undertone to ‘values-based leadership,'” says word watcher Paul McFedries, author of “Word Spy” and editor of WordSpy.com. “We’re seeing ‘values’ morphing into the general idea of moral values, probably because people see it as a short form of ‘family values.'”
Some lexicographers might argue that everyone is “values-based.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines “value” as “a principle, standard or quality considered worthwhile or desirable.” But what people consider desirable can be good or bad.
“What’s important to one person could be many things, not necessarily positive things,” McFedries said. “A business might value the bottom line. If that’s what you value, then the means to get to that end are not necessarily important as long as you reach the thing you value: maximum profit for the shareholder.”
Parkinson said he considered the ambiguity of the word “values,” citing a commencement address by columnist George Will at Lafayette College in 2000. In that speech, Will contended that when people say “values,” they often mean “virtues.” Webster defines “virtue” as “conformity to a standard of right . . . a particular moral excellence.”
But Parkinson didn’t wish to split lexical hairs on his school’s billboards and said using “virtuous” would be “a little self-righteous.”
“I didn’t want the tagline to be `virtuous leaders,'” he said. “The word ‘values’ is more in line with business terminology. . . . Implicit in ‘values’ is good values, not bad. If we were to do market research on this, I would be shocked if less than 99 percent of respondents didn’t associate something positive with that.”
Talk of “values” is hardly restricted to the world of business. With the election season under way, “‘moral values’ is going to be on everyone’s lips,” McFedries said.
So will the phrase “family values”—it’s hard to locate a candidate who says he or she doesn’t value family life.
“Values” is also unavoidable in sports, though it can serve as a source of irony. This month’s telecast of The Masters golf championship included a public service spot for First Tee, a non-profit organization that introduces golf to youth. In the spot, a mother reported that golf is “teaching my daughter important values.”
But at Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts The Masters, those values do not include welcoming female golfers as members. To fend off protests aimed at advertisers over that policy, CBS and Augusta National made this the second year in a row the tournament was commercial-free save for that First Tee spot and its message about “values.”
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