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The Importance of a Candidate’s Values in the MBA Application Process

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Welcome back to our 10-part series, in which we share an excerpt from the recently published book Becoming a Clear Admit: The Definitive Guide to MBA Admissions, with added commentary from its author, Alex Brown.

In this final part of the series, we look at the increasing importance of a candidate’s values through the lens of many recent business crises caused by corrupt leadership.

Book Excerpt:


There are two ways to win in a competitive situation: to be better than your competitors or to cheat. While the attributes discussed in previous sections of the book relate to the former, values are relevant to the latter. It is important to make sure that future leaders are not predisposed to finding ways to cheat in the marketplace rather than competing in a fair manner. Cheating can encompass illegal activity, as well as more fuzzy ethical behaviors.

Business is not unique in creating competitive situations where cheating can help a competitor gain an edge. In the high stakes world of professional sports, cheating has become an almost accepted part of its culture; winning has become more important than integrity. You can google “hand of god from Maradona” for a classic example, and Lance Armstrong is a universally known case. In most NFL games you can see an American football star claiming that a catch was clean when it was not, and in most Premier League soccer matches you will witness a soccer player claiming that he was fouled when he tripped over himself. It is seldom that you see an athlete who won a referee’s decision unfairly go to the official after the incident and admit that the pass was actually incomplete or that the foul did not take place.

Cheating in a business sense can manifest in a variety of ways, for example whether exaggerating product claims to increase sales, paying below-market wages to cut costs, or making or accepting bribes. MBA programs want to enroll candidates who are fundamentally good citizens. An effective person who is passionate and ambitious is not good if she is morally bankrupt.

There are many examples of business crises that have been rooted in questionable ethics…

Author’s Commentary:

Of the five attributes I highlight in the book—intellectual capacity, effectiveness, ambition, passion and values—this is the attribute about which I feel most passionate. Business schools get applications from very smart individuals (intellectual capacity) who are passionate, provide good examples of accomplishments and experiences that illustrate their effectiveness, and have goals that signal ambition. But without a strong value system, the prior attributes can lead someone down the wrong path.

There are too many examples of this to list here; in the book, I address the disasters at Enron, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, the Wall Street meltdown in 2008, leadership at FIFA, countries that are corrupt and global supply chains that cut corners. And even since the recent publication of the book, Wells Fargo has been in the news for the wrong reasons.

The market systems we have in place reward this behavior in some instances, which makes the values attribute all the more important. If business is truly going to be the engine of growth in the future, we need to make sure those that are leading are doing so not only to satisfy shareholder value, but also social value.

Business schools’ mission statements generally highlight their vision for creating leaders to improve business and society; this cannot happen without identifying MBA applicants with strong value systems.