Harvard Business School invented the “leadership” industry—and produced a generation of corporate monsters. No wonder Sheryl Sandberg, one of the school’s most prominent graduates, lacks a functioning moral compass.
The ongoing three-way public-relations car wreck involving Washington, Facebook, and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s powerful C.O.O., begs a question of America’s esteemed managerial class. How has someone with such sterling Establishment credentials—Harvard University, Harvard Business School, the Clinton administration—managed to find herself in such a pickle?
The answer won’t be found in the minutes of Facebook board meetings or in Sandberg’s best-selling books, Lean In and Option B, which cemented her position in the corporate firmament as a feminist heroine. Rather, it starts all the way back in 1977, when Sandberg was just eight years old and the U.S. economy was still recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the end of World War II. That’s the year that Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik wrote an article entitled, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in America’s most influential business journal, Harvard Business Review.For years, Zaleznik argued, the country had been over-managed and under-led. The article helped spawn the annual multi-billion-dollar exercise in nonsense known as the Leadership Industry, with Harvard as ground zero. The article gave Harvard Business School a new raison d’être in light of the fact that the product it had been selling for decades—managers—was suddenly no longer in vogue. Henceforth, it would be molding leaders.
Which brings us back to Sheryl Sandberg, the ostensible exemplar of what Harvard Business professor Bill George calls Authentic Leadership. Before the wheels started to fall off at Facebook, Sandberg was profiled in George’s book, Discover Your True North, as a model of the kind of authentic leader H.B.S. claims to churn out. Sandberg, after all, has led something of a charmed educational and corporate life, palling around with the likes ofLarry Summers, working at McKinsey & Company (which also claims to be a leadership-factory nonpareil), then Google, and now Facebook. Indeed, there is no question that Sheryl Sandberg is one of the premier managers of her time—she oversaw stupendous growth of ad-driven sales organizations at both Google and Facebook. But as new evidence emerges regarding Facebook’s maddeningly foot-dragging response to scandals ranging from data abuse to election interference, the pertinent question is whether she was ever really aleader.
Harvard Business School has certainly seemed to think so. If you go to the Review Web site and type in Sheryl Sandberg, one of the first items that comes up is a Case Study entitledPortrait of a Leader: Sheryl Sandberg. The author, Wharton professor Stewart D. Friedman, writes that “Sandberg personifies Total Leadership by being authentic, acting with integrity and pursuing innovation.” What is Total Leadership? George—who prefers Authentic to Total—offers a few clues. In April 2018, as Facebook executives were summoned to Capitol Hill, he wrote an op-ed in which he suggested that one of Mark Zuckerberg’s primary failures had been not to “rely upon the wisdom of Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.” In another, George suggested that Sandberg should be on a short list of C.E.O.s to replace ethically challenged Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick. In yet another, George compared the “fake-it approach” of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes with that of Sandberg, “an open and transparent authentic leader.”
Facebook’s leadership culture, as should be clear by now, has been anything but open, transparent, or authentic. A true leader would not have had to write a post defending herself in light of her company’s hiring of a P.R. firm, Definers, that leveraged anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros to deflect attention from Facebook’s own missteps. (“I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have,” wrote Sandberg, who was hired, in part, to manage Facebook’s Washington relationships.) A true leader would not have overseen the company’s rampant abuse and sale of user data, after promising the Federal Trade Commission that it would be more responsible about doing so. A true leader would not have spent five whole days staying silent after The New York Times reported on Cambridge Analytica’s access and exploitation of Facebook user data in March 2018, only to later claim that she and Zuckerberg had previously asked the source of that leak to destroy said data but had failed to confirm that they had done so. Sandberg and Zuckerberg—another Harvard alum—included the same line in their respective mea culpas: “We have a responsibility to protect your data—if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
That’s a hilarious statement for those familiar with the serpentine argot of America’s ruling class. Consider the use of the word “serve”—that’s the kind of nonsense they spew at McKinsey, working “in service” of their clients when they’re just as mercenary and self-interested as the next M.B.A. Does Sheryl Sandberg, the C.O.O. of a company whose primary product is user data, want us to believe she’s been trying to “protect” it all this time?
Perhaps on some level, Sandberg, like Zuckerberg, still believes Facebook are the good guys. “They’re in Silicon Valley, surrounded by their white liberal friends, peddling their version of how great for society they are because they’ve been connecting people,” a prominent female C.E.O. of a New York-based firm told me. But, she explained, “There’s also a kind of entrepreneurial delusion that seems unavoidable when you get that big, that fast. They were too focused on making every sale, making Wall Street happy, raising the stock price, and making themselves rich and self-satisfied. When you get that wealthy, you start to buy your own bullshit.”
The truth is, Harvard Business School, like much of the M.B.A. universe in which Sandberg was reared, has always cared less about moral leadership than career advancement and financial performance. The roots of the problem can be found in the School’s vaunted “Case Method,” a discussion-based pedagogy that asks students to put themselves in the role of corporate Übermensch. At the start of each class, one unlucky soul is put in the hot seat, presented with a “what would you do” scenario, and then subjected to the ruthless interrogation of their peers. Graded on a curve, the intramural competition can be intense—M.B.A.s are super-competitive, after all.
Let’s be clear about this: in business, as in life, there isn’t always one correct answer. So the teaching of a decision-making philosophy that is deliberate and systematic, but still open-minded, is hardly controversial on its face. But to help students overcome the fear of sounding stupid and being remorselessly critiqued, they are reminded, in case after case—and with emphasis—that there are no right answers. And that has had the unfortunate effect of opening up a chasm of moral equivalence in too many of their graduates.
And yet, there are obviously many situations where some answers are more right than others. Especially when it comes to moral issues like privacy, around which both Sandberg and Facebook have a history of demonstrating poor judgment. While H.B.S. is correct in its assertion that it produces people who can make decisions, the fact of the matter is that they have never emphasized how to make the right ones.
Consider investment banker Bowen McCoy’s “The Parable of the Sadhu,” published inHarvard Business Review in 1977, and again 20 years later. It addressed what seemed, at least to the H.B.S. crowd, to be an ethical dilemma. McCoy was on a trip to the Himalayas when his expedition encountered a sadhu, or holy man, near death from hypothermia and exposure. Their compassion extended only to clothing the man and leaving him in the sun, before continuing on to the summit. One of McCoy’s group saw a “breakdown between the individual ethic and the group ethic,” and was gripped by guilt that the climbers had not made absolutely sure that the sadhu made it down the mountain alive. McCoy’s response: “Here we are . . . at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. . . . What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?”
McCoy later felt guilt over the incident, but his parable nevertheless illustrated the extent to which aspiring managers might justify putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage—including the life of a dying man. The fact that H.B.S. enthusiastically incorporated said parable into its curriculum says far more about the fundamental mindset of the school than almost anything else that has come out of it. The “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.
Here’s a slightly more recent example: remember Jeff Skilling? Like Sandberg, he graduated from H.B.S. and went to work at McKinsey. And like Sandberg, he left McKinsey for a C-suite gig—in his case, Enron—that took him to the stratosphere. Again like Sandberg, he basked in adulation over his ability to deliver shareholder returns. Skilling had done so, of course, by turning Enron into one of the greatest frauds the world has ever seen.
One of Skilling’s H.B.S. classmates, John LeBoutillier, who went on to be a U.S. congressman, later recalled a case discussion in which the students were debating what the C.E.O. should do if he discovered that his company was producing a product that could be potentially fatal to consumers. “I’d keep making and selling the product,” he recalled Skilling saying. “My job as a businessman is to be a profit center and to maximize return to the shareholders. It’s the government’s job to step in if a product is dangerous.” Several students nodded in agreement, recalled LeBoutillier. “Neither Jeff nor the others seemed to care about the potential effects of their cavalier attitude. . . . At H.B.S. . . . you were then, and still are, considered soft or a wuss if you dwell on morality or scruples.”
Why do so many M.B.A.s struggle to make the ethical decisions that seem so clear to the rest of us? Is it right to employ a scummy P.R. firm to deflect attention from our failures? Is it O.K. if we bury questions about user privacy and consent under a mountain of legalese? Can we get away with repeatedly choosing profits over principles and then promising that we will do better in the future?
If you think this kind of thing isn’t still going on at Harvard Business School—or wasn’t going on when Sandberg graduated in 1995—I refer you to Michel Anteby, who joined the faculty 10 years later, in 2005. At first enthusiastic, Anteby was soon flummoxed by the complete absence of normative viewpoints in classroom discussion. “I grew up in France where there were very articulated norms,” he told the BBC in 2015. “Higher norms and lower norms. Basically, you have convictions of what was right or wrong, and when I tried to articulate this in the classroom, I encountered . . . silence on the part of students. Because they weren’t used to these value judgments in the classroom.”
Eight years after his arrival, Anteby published Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education. The book was not published by Harvard but the University of Chicago Press. Calling the case system an “unscripted journey” for students, it was one of the first times an insider had joined the chorus of outsiders who have long criticized the case method as one that glamorizes the C.E.O.-as-hero, as well as the overuse of martial terminology in business curricula. (The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Mark Zuckerberg currently considers Facebook “at war.”)
“H.B.S. studies everybody under the sun,” Anteby told me in early 2015. “There is no reason we should be off limits.” Alas, they were. Not long after his book was published, Anteby came to believe that H.B.S. would not grant him tenure, and left the school soon after. “He is an unbelievably productive and smart guy,” one of his supporters, the University of Michigan’s Jerry Davis, told me later that year. “And they fired him. Probably because H.B.S. wasn’t the right place to have a conversation about itself. It would be like being at Versailles in 1789, offering up leadership secrets of Louis XIV. The really unfortunate part is that he wasn’t as harsh as he should have been, because he was up for tenure.”
The absence of voices like Anteby’s are evident to this day, and an ongoing indictment of the culture that turned Facebook from a Harvard sophomore’s dorm-room project into what passes for a Harvard Business School success story. Return one last time to the H.B.R. Web site, and you will find a case study that was published just a few months ago entitled “Facebook—Can Ethics Scale in the Digital Age?” Set aside the abuse of the English language in the question—M.B.A.s specialize in that kind of thing.
The mere fact it’s being asked serves as resounding proof that the moral equivalence problem is still with us today. The question is not whether or not a company of Facebook’s size and reach can stay ethical. The question is whether it will even try.
Duff McDonald is the author of The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite.