The McGowan Fellows Program: Molding Future Leaders, Respecting Donor Intent

The following is a guest post submitted by The William G. McGowan Charitable Fund. 

We are the third generation of the family of William G. McGowan, founder of MCI, who was known for being the “great disruptor” of AT&T’s communications monopoly. As we begin to help lead our family’s foundation, the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, we feel understanding the guidance from the Fund’s benefactor – and applying it in the context of the 21st century – is our responsibility.   

Many people ask us what it’s like to take on such a serious role. Our response almost always includes words and phrases like “daunting,” “real impact on the lives of people and communities” and “a great sense of responsibility.” 

Although we have heard many stories about “Uncle Bill” from the previous two McGowan generations, our generation never knew the Fund’s benefactor. We did not have the benefit of his direct wisdom and counsel, especially concerning what he wanted to achieve through his philanthropic commitments. However, the stories, his speeches and the guidance from the previous generation of family members all highlight the importance he placed on ethical leadership in business.      

Since the Fund’s inception in 1993, our core focus has been addressing poverty to realize our vision: “To impact lives today, create sustainable change and empower future generations to achieve their greatest potential.” Today, for the Fund to be successful, we need a healthy, functioning and ethical business sector. This begins with ethical leadership. 

After carefully reviewing the mission of the McGowan Fund’s “Six Principles of Ethical Leadership” that was derived from Bill McGowan’s leadership, we realize holding business leaders accountable for ethical leadership is more important now than it has ever been.  

Perhaps Uncle Bill was far-sighted enough to see how important it would be in the 21st century.  

Lapses of ethics and ethical behavior by corporate leaders in America have become all too common. “Trust barometers” tell the same story: Americans’ distrust in the leaders of the nation’s institutions, including business institutions, is increasing. Trust in the charitable sector is down by 4% even though millions of people still donate money and volunteer time to help their communities and fellow citizens.   

One of the basic concepts of the McGowan Fund is that ethical leadership in business can be taught to future business leaders in school to ensure they are ready to become ethical leaders and problem solvers, knowing how to apply ethical values to make decisions, even in the toughest of circumstances. That is why we are impressed with the Fund’s creation of the McGowan Fellows Program 13 years ago. The Fund partners with 10 leading universities and their schools of business and MBA programs to offer selected students an opportunity to be fully immersed in a core set of ethics and ethical leadership engagements and teach them to make decisions based on ethical values. 

We are “all in” to help the Fund’s commitment to prepare the next generation of business leaders through the McGowan Fellows and advance the Ethical Leader of the Year Award created by the Fund. Our third awardee will be selected this year, recognizing a CEO who truly “walks the talk” of ethics and ethical leadership and holds themselves accountable to those values every day.   

We are also all in for the McGowan Fund’s commitment to the communities where its trustees live, to help create new avenues for social mobility for the poorest and most challenged populations.  

It is not just our conclusion on the importance of ethical leadership that drives the Fund’s mission. We do hope – and we believe Americans expect – that MBA and business leadership programs will hear what the market is saying about the importance of preparing young leaders in business to be ethical.  

In a recent op-ed, Korn Ferry, the nation’s largest search firm, said corporate search committees are demanding clear evidence of their executive candidates’ ethical behavior. In addition, Korn Ferry says the job candidates themselves are asking the same question – “Is this company truly committed to ethics and ethical leadership?” 

Our friends who lead MBA and business leadership programs should also listen to their core market – the next generation of students – and how important ethical leadership is to them. When the Colorado State University College of Business offered courses on ethics to the entire student body, without any advertising or promotion, more than 1,000 students immediately enrolled in those online classes.     

The primary markets for MBA and business leadership programs – students and their future employers – are forceful in their view that the time has come for everyone in business to understand the importance of ethics and ethical leadership.  

The Ethical Leader of the Year Award was created by the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund two years ago, and two recipients (one each year) have been chosen by a panel of experienced leaders. In 2022, the first recipient of the Ethical Leader of the Year Award was Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, received the Award in 2023. The judges determined they met the highest standards of ethics and ethical business leadership.   

When they received their Awards in front of 20,000 people at the Society for Human Resource Management National Conference (our partner in the Award), both Lowery and Bastian reiterated that ethical leadership is not just the right thing to do but is also very good for business. They were correct – their employees, customers and shareholders have seen firsthand the value of ethics and ethical leadership, even during COVID-19.   

As we have now completed our first full year on the board of trustees, we can truly say so much has been accomplished but so much more can be done. Therefore, we urge all who read this to join us in encouraging the incorporation of ethics and ethical leadership into MBA and business leadership programs to prepare the next generation of effective, successful business leaders. A really great example is the William G. McGowan School of Business at King’s College – a model for other MBA programs to emulate. 

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