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Encouraging ethical leadership case study

We have revised the Management Consulting elective of our Cardiff MBA, in line with our public value strategy, to place a focus on encouraging ethical leadership and developing the skills and capabilities of the third sector.

Enabling ethical interventions in organisations

Through our MBA programme innovations, we are promoting the value of ethical leadership in business and management while working in partnership to upskill the third sector.

Dr Joe O’Mahoney, who teaches on our Cardiff MBA programme, recognised that the consulting industry, and big business in general, had suffered many high profile scandals. A narrative had also developed that traditional business and management education had played a role in these failures.

Motivated by the School’s commitment to delivering public value, Dr O’Mahoney was keen to update elements of the MBA programme to reflect the School’s strategy and introduce students to a new way of thinking and doing.

Context and rationale

The overarching aim of the initiative is to train potential consultants to make high quality, ethical interventions in organisations while addressing two broad societal challenges: upskilling the third sector and developing ethical leadership through management education.

The first challenge concerns developing skills within the third sector, which can lag behind other sectors in crucial management skills such as marketing, strategy, impact analysis, communication, and people management. This can be for a variety of reasons, not least being prices out of quality management education or being unable to compete on salary for experienced managers.

The second challenge is that of teaching ethical leadership and embedding it within management education. Following the collapse of Enron and other high-profile companies through malpractice, a key Harvard Business Review article (Bennis and O’Toole 2005) charged business schools, and specifically MBA courses, with ‘failing to instil the norms of ethical behaviour’.

The initiative

Inspired by academic debate and theory of how best to respond to the need for greater ethical leadership and engagement in business management education, we decided to develop the real-world practise we offer our MBA cohort, providing them with a hands-on immersive experience. This provides emotional and cultural insights that can offer a stronger foundation than simply cognitive learning.

The Management Consulting elective on the Cardiff MBA engaged teams of students to work as management consultants with local charities. The aim is to train potential consultants to make high quality, ethical interventions in organisations.

To achieve this, the course has three aims:

  • developing student skills and knowledge of the consulting process through experiential learning with real-life business challenges
  • enabling sustained improvements in local charities through the transfer of MBA skills and knowledge
  • developing reflexive ethical consideration of the students’ experiences with the third sector.

In order to achieve these objectives, we are providing the foundation of consulting knowledge through lectures and tutorials and masterclasses from PA Consulting. Following this, we initiate an engagement project with the third sector, creating space for the knowledge transfer between students and charities.

Prior to the course beginning, charities are coached to provide specific management challenges where student teams can apply the knowledge they have learned on their MBA.

The engagement, which takes place over eight weeks, involves students interviewing charity representatives, co-identifying a manageable project, working together on the project, and then providing a report and a presentation to the charities and a reflexive essay on ethics to the tutor.


Our innovations have had a significant impact not only on students and charities, but the wider international teaching curricula on management consulting.

The experience of engaging with the third sector exposed students to organisations and groups of individuals that many had not encountered before, such as alcoholics, the homeless, the poor and the bullied. Whilst working with these groups, they learnt not only about the diverse needs of these groups, but also the economic and social antecedents of their ills.

The initiative has engendered a deeper ethical understanding of the role that business and management can play in tackling social ills and provoked a stronger moral sentiment.

Survey responses after the period of engagement showed that:

  • 65% of students said that they were more likely ‘to consider working in the third sector’
  • 72% of students were more ‘aware of the ethical and social consequences of business in society’
  • 92% of students were more ‘aware of the difference good management could make to the third sector’.

Each year, the charity representatives are surveyed and interviewed to assess the impact of the engagement, and to learn lessons for future cohorts. In a separate survey of charity representatives, it was clear that the students had a real impact, both on the bottom line, and on the wider performance of the organisations:

  • 75% of charities said that the engagement was likely ‘to have an impact on cost reduction or revenue growth’.
  • 54% of the charities said that engagement allowed new management tools and techniques to be learned.
  • 65% of charities said the engagement ‘bought new ideas into the organisation’.

The initiative has had a wider impact on teaching beyond Cardiff. Internationally, Dr Joe O’Mahoney founded a group of 17 consulting educators in universities around the world to share best practice on teaching. The materials and structure of this course are now used in University of Technology Sydney, VU University Netherlands, and University of Notre-Dame, USA.