Ethical leadership at the heart of the COVID-19 crisis

“Ethics in the Global Economy”, that’s what our Susilo Institute stands for.

As one of the institutes at BU’s Questrom School of Business we are teaching and researching the ethical challenges today’s leaders face and we are providing tools to face them with integrity and consistency. We also consider it our job to help our students understand why it is important for today’s leaders to consider the ethics of their actions.

Why is it important that ethics plays an integral part of a modern business school and acts as bridge to other disciplines such as law, computer science, policy, to name a few?

It’s because the ethics underlying the actions of leaders and their organizations have long-lasting effects on all of us and everything: The environment, their employees, our society at large. These three pillars are captured nicely in the term ESG, which originally refers to quantifying the sustainability and impact of an investment in a business – one of the main foci of our institute spearheaded by my co-director Nalin Kulatilaka, and affiliated faculty such as Caroline Flammer.

Our other main focus is on Ethics at the Frontier of Technology. This encompasses issues such as consumer aversion to AI technology even if superior to human (you find a great example by our colleagues Chiara Longoni and Carey Morewedge in the health domain here), how autonomous vehicles should perform when they are about to be in an accident (see, for example MIT’s Moral Machine), or the responsibility of publicly traded social media companies such as Facebook or Twitter to combat misinformation on their platforms. For instance, in case of social media and misinformation there are clearly reasons for why one could argue tech companies do have or do not have a responsibility to rise to the occasion and tackle the infodemic.  On the one hand Facebook has a business model that is very successful for its shareholders and one could make the reasonable argument that that is the primary group that they should be responsible to as publicly traded, for-profit company (it provides a free platform for its users to network with their friends, families, or likeminded people and share their opinions and views in exchange to use the data to sell targeted advertisement). One the other hand, if society is increasingly consuming news from such platforms, and it is difficult to discern who the message sources are and which consumers end up being exposed to which types of targeted messages, companies like Facebook find themselves in situations where not doing anything about abuse on their platforms can have a significant influence on world events (including the 2016 US presidential election and the Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya minority group).

What makes many of these topics complex is that there often is no clear right or wrong. They consist of tradeoffs between not only purely economic costs and benefits but also less tangible dimensions such as privacy and convenience that are difficult to quantify and compare along similar dimensions, and will oftentimes lead to different resolutions based on one’s underlying ethical value and guiding principles (e.g., to maximize benefits, treat people equally, giving priority to the worst off etc.). But, just because there is no clear right or wrong does not mean that it is advisable for leaders and managers to dodge these complex topics.

In the classroom we challenge students by discussing what the consequences can be when leaders don’t take an active stance – one way or another. We point out that ethical leadership and management requires to be deliberate on these issues, that they align their actions with their values, that they make informed and transparent decisions in a “cold” state (as opposed to “in the heat of the moment”, when emotions such as panic or overconfidence may take over), and that they be transparent about their actions and the reasons for them. Being pro-active, not reactive, with a focus on the long-term, and being willing to adjust one’s actions or values to realign them, that is was leading with integrity is about.

The current COVID-19 pandemic lays bare many related ethical issues:

  • How to trade-off limited resources such as ventilators or masks among people in need? — As I’m writing this piece, I’m receiving a Boston-Globe email headlined “Who gets a ventilator? New gut-wrenching state guidelines issued on rationing equipment” (April 8, 2020).
  • How to get people to adopt sustained measures needed to flatten the curve such as hand-washing, social distancing, wearing masks or how to help people do so while maintaining their mental health and wellbeing? Here, I believe my expertise and interest in evidence-based interventions grounded in insights from the behavioral and social sciences (commonly referred to as Behavioral Economics) can play a valuable role.
  • How to fight potentially lethal misinformation about the pandemic through social media?
  • How to trade-off privacy in the context of digital location/contact tracking apps in an effort to better understand and fight the spread of this and potentially future pandemics?
  • How to improve institutional and private preparedness for future pandemics?
  • ….
  • How to responsibly restart the economy as the pandemic subsides? This in particular touches upon many thorny issues from employee benefits and wellbeing to discussions around an “immunity passport” to certify those that carry antibodies and can therefore be deemed safe to “resume normal working life” (see article on Politico from April 10, 2020 citing Dr. Anthony Fauci here, and a NYTimes article here, April 3, 2020). The latter is a real and sensible discussion particularly for key workers (hospitals, grocery stores, delivery services, governments, schools, etc.) but it also raises concerns ranging from individuals’ privacy to the potential for discrimination to the assurance of the passport’s validity (how to combat fake cards).

Any of these big societal questions that we are facing in the here and now offer the chance to make unprecedented progress but to do it well, they require a multi- and interdisciplinary, global approach. They require bringing in the perspectives of international  experts from the medical field, to engineers, who know what the technical capabilities are, to the legal experts, who know the rules and regulations within which we can operate, to the designers, that know how to bring ideas truly to live, to the economists and business scholars, who understand the incentives and workings of the markets, to the political and social scientist that bring in a deep understanding not only of our institutions but in particular also us humans, our biases that may sometimes lead to suboptimal, shortsighted decisions and our unique capacity for cooperation, empathy, and altruism, particularly in challenging times like these.

Great efforts are on the way at our institute and BU to further build these cross-school connections to tackle society’s most pressing issues; to name a few: The Sustainability Research Institute, the Cyber Security, Law, and Society Alliance (Cyber Alliance),  or the creation of the new Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) . Ethical Leadership and societal impact are at the heart of these developments. And that’s what we at the Susilo Institute at the Questrom School of Business stand for.


Yours truly,

Nina Mazar

Co-Director of the Susilo Institute for Ethics in the Global Economy

Professor of Marketing (Behavioral Science)

Questrom School of Business

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