Business School

Shaping Leaders for an Ethical Future

March 17, 2021  • Ideas Worth Teaching

In many countries, March 2021 will mark the one-year anniversary of public health declarations of the threat of COVID-19. For many businesses, March 2021 also marks the one-year anniversary of working in unprecedented ways—from working entirely remotely, to steering teams through historic social upheaval. What lessons does this experience hold for business leadership in the future?

Gianpiero Petriglieri

To answer these questions, we spoke with Gianpiero Petriglieri, Professor at France’s leading business school, INSEAD, and the winner of an Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award for his course, “Ethics: Value-based Leadership for Cosmopolitans.”  Read why Gianpiero believes management theory is facing a mid-life crisis, why he hopes care will be at the core of leadership in the future, and much more. 

One of the first sessions of your course challenges “the cult of disruption.” Can you speak a bit about what this means, and why this approach was important in creating this course?

Over the past years, I have been having the impression that “disruption,” in business, and business schools, has become a dogma of sorts. An unquestionable good. Many times I have met executives who were far more preoccupied with how to disrupt their business, or their competitors’, than with asking or explaining why they should do so—and who would benefit from it. At the same time as I was designing the first version of this course, a debate was emerging about the risks of adopting “move fast and break things” (and eventually apologise for it) as an organizing principle. Perhaps some of the things we break, or the institutions we disrupt, might be worth preserving instead. But how do we make that call? Or more precisely, who gets to make that call, and on whose behalf? When we say that one change represents progress, what does that mean, really?

Those questions, it seems to me, go to the core of leadership as a social and an ethical practice, in the sense that leaders are always bringing some people together (and not others) and bringing some values to life (and not others). And I thought it was important to raise them in the context of a management curriculum in which leadership is still, often, represented primarily as an instrumental practice, an activity to reach certain goals.

Those questions have the potential to make leaders not just more effective, but wiser. Because they invite perspective and stop useful ideas, such as disruption or alignment, to take a dangerous turn and become unquestionable beliefs. You can read more about this here and here.

One of the major themes of the course is how the idea of leadership has differed across time and place. How do you think the demands of leadership have evolved since the outbreak of COVID-19–and what will be expected of leaders even after the pandemic recedes?

I think the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked what I have come to think of as a mid-life crisis for management theory and practice. When I ask a group of managers, no matter their culture or seniority, what makes a good leader, they always mention a vision, and a strategy to realize that vision. But in an existential crisis, a crisis in which there is no enemy to repel or territory to conquer, a vision and a strategy are of limited use.

What we need is care. We need leaders who can hold us steady and hold us together as we work on how to get through this crisis, and perhaps, hopefully, at some point, learn from it. Throughout the centuries, leaders have always cared about their people and their future, but we have often asked them to care about the future first and foremost, and then pull or push the people there. Hence the emphasis on vision. This crisis calls for the very opposite. Care for people, in the present, and the future will eventually unfold. What I hope we will learn is to view care as the core of leadership, not as a peripheral concern.

Go into more depth on these issues here, here, and here.

In asking, “What is a good team?” you explore how individuals with conflicting values can work together. After the last year of remote work and heightened social tensions in many countries, how will you approach this topic the next time you teach the course? 

I think so many times we confuse consensus with conformity. And that portion of the course reminds participants that real consensus is the opposite of conformity. It requires honest, vigorous, respectful debates between people who have different opinions, and perhaps different worldviews underneath those differences in opinions. 

We all understand, theoretically, that a good team is one that makes that debate possible. And yet we all battle with our wish for the comfort of conformity, or with the price that others’ pressure puts upon us. The question could not be more relevant indeed. We all have a desire to stick with people who look and think like us, and a desire to meet people who look and think differently. When the latter is allowed to prevail, we embrace diversity and grow. When the former prevails, we polarize and get stuck.

The question is, how do leaders and workplaces help curiosity prevail over caution? And how about technology? What does it take to sustain pluralism without enabling polarization? These are all questions that have been central to the course in the past, and will remain so in the future. Teaching it remotely, last Spring, I was touched by students’ efforts to transcend the limitations that remoteness poses on our curiosity about each other. It was possible to turn the course itself in a learning opportunity about the risks and rewards of connecting at a distance, and about the temptation to cling to the familiar. I expect to continue exploring that tension, between remoteness and proximity, for a few years to come in the course, whether it happens online or not.

Read more here and here.

As alumni from your course go into leadership positions across industries and sectors, what is the one lesson that you hope will stick with them throughout their careers?

First, that leadership does not exist. Leaders do. For all we can treat leadership as an intellectual or technical enterprise, it remains an embodied, emotional, practice. When they are looking for direction on comfort in their lives, or in their teams, people do not look at a leadership book. They look at those they regard as leaders around them, and they learn from those leaders. Some of what they learn might help, and some might, even if inadvertently, hurt.

Second, that differences are inevitable, but diversity is an accomplishment. It takes sensitive and skillful leaders to ensure that different views and stories can thrive in the same space and enrich those who live in it.

Third, is that leaders are teachers. It’s a cliché, but it is true. We learn so much at work. And as managers, my former students are some of the most important teachers that people will have in their lives. I hope they enjoy the responsibility of teaching as much as I do, trying to combine reassurance and provocation, theory and practice, and most of all, to leave others with the gift of useful insights and interesting questions. Just like I hope my course, when we work well together, leaves students with a bit of both.

You can read more here.

To learn more about Gianpiero’s work, visit

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