Tao of the MBA – the case for making business students learn to meditate

Jane MacDougall, of the National Post wrote a piece titled “Tao of the MBA” where she draws on observations about ethics, trust and good leadership, largely based on Tom Culham’s book, Ethical Education of Business Leaders. The article provides a thought provoking look at the type of leaders we need to be creating, and also gives readers a sense of the type of  education for business leaders that Tom advocates in his Transformation Through Ethical Leadership certificate program, offered at CityU Canada. The next series begins Feb 28, 2018. See bottom of this article for registration details.

You can read the entire piece as originally published in the National Post HERE.


Tao of the MBA

You expect people to play hardball in business. It’s the spitballs you don’t anticipate.

The marketplace has always been cutthroat. We’re probably no more unscrupulous than we ever were, but thanks to technology, we can now separate more money from more fools more efficiently. The travelling snake oil salesman could only dream of the market The Shopping Channel can deliver.

Take the word sincere. It’s popularly believed that sincere derives from the practice of marble sellers and sculptors concealing the imperfections in their marble by rubbing the surface with wax. To proclaim to prospective purchaser that a vendor’s marble was unadulterated, the vendor would call out “Sine cera!,” or without wax. In his book, False Impressions, Thomas Hoving, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, declares that many of the world’s greatest antiquities are fakes, dating from the time of their original commission. In one of his many examples, he cites a story of how pilgrims were encouraged to come to Rome to be cured by a miraculous shield — the Ancile — that had dropped from the heavens. If one magical shield was a boon for the tourist trade, more would be even better. Numa Pompilius, Romulus’s successor, ordered a dozen duplicates. Miraculous cures … and no waiting! The philosopher Horace said that “he who knows a thousand works of art, knows a thousand frauds.” Duplicity and mendacity have been around since the ancients.

Expect no safe haven. There’s a special place in heaven for the free-spending Bishop of Limburg, who the Vatican suspended after discovering expenditures of $43-million for renovating his humble abode, never mind the first-class travel to visit the downtrodden.

Yes, caveat emptor was a catchphrase long before Bernie Madoff was building wooden block pyramids in his playpen.

In September of this year two counterfeiters were finished serving their time in the U.S. Their crime did not involve fake Rolexes, nor black-market medicines. They were counterfeiting honey. Honey! The two executives of AWL, a German food trading company, were involved in a scheme that allowed their company to evade $180-million dollars in tariffs by disguising cheap, Chinese honey. Chinese honey is restricted from entering the U.S. for a variety of reasons, not the least being an artificially low trading price. The AWL honey, however, was not only adulterated with sugar and syrups to cover for a sauerkraut odour resulting from improper processing, but the honey was also tainted with chloramphenicol. This antibiotic is used to treat Foulbrood disease in apiaries and is banned from food use in the U.S. One of the convicted was a recent business school grad, the other had worked her way up in the company. Both understood AWL’s corporate culture well. At the time of sentencing, lawyers remarked that this was a case where good judgment was ignored; the employees knew what they were doing was wrong.

You can trust bees, can’t you? Maybe it’s business school grads we shouldn’t trust?

In recent times we seen similar stories involving infant formula and toothpaste. There’s no need here to rehash the subprime mortgage disaster. But somehow I just would never have thought to look sideways at honey. After all, you can trust bees, can’t you? Maybe it’s business school grads we shouldn’t trust?

Tom Culham has strong opinions about trust. Tom has been teaching ethics to business students at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia since 2008. When he tells me this, I have an image of someone coaching wolf pups to smile. I also find myself wondering what the curriculum might look like. I mean, ethics are a rather amorphous concept. What informs this platform?

I’ve been wading through Tom Culham’s book, Ethical Education of Business Leaders. Basically, it’s the course material he teaches to the next generation of titans of industry. It’s a surprisingly good read, and provocative, too. According to Tom, ethical decision-making hinges on self-knowledge. Self knowledge, however, is in short supply, and for that he blames an unbalanced reliance on Western-based science and logic.

How do you teach a bunch of bright sparks with visions of BMW 760is dancing in their head about doing the right thing?

When asked how one becomes an ethical person, he replies, by becoming a whole human being. Ah, yes: that is definitely on my bucket list. He speaks of a finely attuned integration of mind, body, heart and spirit. That all sounds very la-di-dah, but he argues there are measurable, practical benefits that follow. Recent findings in neuroscience suggest intuition flourishes when this integration is in place. Intuition informs the moments of genius that sometimes happen in business. Emotional intelligence is increasingly quantified as an asset in business. A variety of studies in the book refer to the impact of emotional resonance can have in the workplace. A business leader who can communicate emotional resonance, can galvanize his team. This sort of skill derives from emotional intelligence. According to Tom, emotional intelligence can be taught. And should be.

So how do you teach a bunch of bright sparks with visions of BMW 760is dancing in their head about doing the right thing? Culham’s approach is based on using neuroscience as a lens to look at Eastern contemplative practices and traditions and then applying those lessons to our educational institutions. Daoism, with its foundation of qigong — life energy cultivation — is where he starts. He’s a big believer in meditative practice, as meditation regulates the emotions, allowing the individual to know how they feel and then choosing what they are going to do about it. Students are given a broader horizon in which to explore their contribution to the world. And Culham didn’t just fall off a cabbage truck: he’s professional engineer specializing in supply chain management, especially as it relates to the forest products industry. He also has a PhD in the Philosophy of Education.

The effects of unethical behaviour in business can now impact so many, so quickly

The world may be just as nefarious a place as it ever was, but the effects of unethical behaviour in business can now impact so many, so quickly. You have to applaud the Sauder School for addressing the role their graduates play in shaping our world and asking them to hold themselves to a higher standard. The honey in your tea may depend upon it — and I say that without wax.


Tom Culham teaches TRANSFORMATION THROUGH ETHICAL LEADERSHIP, A certificate program designed for Executive and Middle Management Leadership, offered through CityU’s Continuing Education programs. You can learn more about the next series beginning February 28, 2018 HERE. The program is taught over 5 consecutive Wednesdays 9am – 1pm, Feb 28 – Mar 28. Download a program flyer HERE.

Tom Culham, Ph.D., Program Director School of Management City University in Canada Co-Chair, Contemplative Inquiry and Holistic Education, Special Interest Group of the Comparative International Education Society. Representative at Large Research, Management, Spirituality and Religion Special Interest Group of the Academy of Management.