Exploring the dark side of leadership: Governance & Ethics in the VU Amsterdam EMBA

Governance and ethics is a key component of any MBA program. We spoke to Marilieke Engbers, the Governance and Ethics Professor in Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s (VU) Executive MBA: Leading with Purpose program, to learn more about the meaning of governance and ethics, how to make it practical, and why she encourages students to explore the “dark side” of leadership.

In short

The meaning of governance & ethics in the VU Amsterdam EMBA

In the Executive MBA: Leading with Purpose program at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, responsible leadership and purpose take center stage. Thus, it’s no surprise that a course like Business Ethics and Corporate Governance plays a key role in the curriculum.

At VU Amsterdam, however, Professor Marilieke Engbers takes a nontraditional approach to ethics and governance. “I try to operationalize [governance and ethics] by reflecting on the unsaid,” she explains. (00:32) Marilieke defines governance as a leadership process that is enacted between people with different roles and who together shape and are shaped by informal and formal rules. These processes, roles, and rules can be detrimental to the performance of the organization when a lot remains unsaid.

Ethics “is a lot about taking responsibility for the things you’re thinking and feeling but not saying,” Marilieke says. (00:45) These thoughts and feelings might seem futile but when reflecting on them, these thoughts and feelings are often very relevant. When you do not listen carefully to these thoughts and feelings and reflect on what they mean, and do not test and refute them in time, they can grow fast and may enact a spiral of unsaid and silent conflicts. 

Corporate governance is all about reflecting and taking responsibility for both what you are silently thinking and what you are saying and why. The intent behind it is especially important.

What is the dark side of leadership?

To dive deeper into the role governance and ethics play in their own lives, students explore the “dark side” of their leadership. When exploring the unsaid, Marilieke says, we encounter concerns, uncertainties, emotions, dilemmas, and conflicts.

“I think it starts when we accept, as humans, that we’re not perfect individuals. We have all kinds of failures, we’ve got faults, we’ve got biases,” she explains. “If we all accept that we are imperfect, then it becomes so much easier to talk about this dark side – our faults, our biases, [and] our tendencies.” (19:21) Most people prefer to embrace and celebrate talents and success and want to suppress insecurities and mistakes.

The ultimate goal of Marilieke’s course is to show students the effects of reflecting together on the unintended effects they have on others. When you explore these unintended effects together, students learn the power of vulnerability, develop a more realistic self-assessment, and increase empathy. Marilieke uses “here and now” moments in the classroom to reflect on these dynamics and how students perceive each other’s behaviors.

From the boardroom to the classroom: How Marilieke’s latest research informs her teaching

Marilieke’s latest research has also influenced how and what she teaches in her governance and ethics course in the VU Amsterdam EMBA.

In her research, Marilieke explores a unique context: the boardroom. “What I did was explore what is exactly under the surface of what’s being said. When [I] explored the unsaid, I found that basically, these boardroom members experience many dilemmas and conflicts,” she tells us. “In my book, I tried to explain these conflicts and these dilemmas, the ethics of being a board member, and how difficult it is [to know what is right].” (05:20)

In her course in the VU Amsterdam EMBA, Marilieke asks students to ask themselves questions like, “How do I enter the room? With what state of mind? What is my intent?”

Turning the gaze towards yourself means that “it becomes very personal,” Marilieke says. (02:18) It also means that Marilieke has to turn the gaze towards herself when she faces dilemmas while teaching. She has to model the right behavior in order to teach the right ethical behavior. Marilieke is well aware that she is also only human. This means she might not always know what the right response is. She found that voicing her dilemma and sharing it with her students offers new insights. It all, however, depends on the situation as dilemmas are very contextual.

Making governance & ethics practical in an EMBA

While students explore heavy topics and reflect on their own leadership habits, Marilieke also emphasizes the practical aspect of her course.

Students will explore different types of casework, combined with role-playing, to get a better sense of what is actually unfolding in organizations. That way, “you will be able to recognize it when it unfolds in your own organization,” Marilieke claims. “In that sense, it’s practical because it’s clear [and] it’s bringing in real life into your course.” (15:45)

Governance and Ethics is a central component of any EMBA program. In VU Amsterdam Amsterdam’s Executive MBA: Leading with Purpose program, students work together to co-create, ask challenging questions, and engage in deep introspection to become forward-thinking, purpose-driven leaders.

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