Only team-building was cited more often by the managers in Fortune 1,000 companies surveyed by Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Thomas Dyckman, acting dean of the Johnson School, said: "The results may seem surprising in this era of mass downsizing, but they clearly show that executives think there's more to corporate responsibility than just profits. Executives may be getting weary of the `chainsaw' management mentality that's been receiving so much attention lately."
In fact, 24 per cent of executives disagreed that maximising profits was a company's primary responsibility and 21 per cent disagreed that a company's financial strength should outweigh all other considerations when corporate leaders are faced with difficult decisions. Most executives strongly agree that corporations have a responsibility to address social issues, such as work-family, diversity, equal rights and the environment, and only 14 per cent agreed that corporate leaders are doing a good job in this area.
Perhaps more surprising, though, are the findings of a similar survey Cornell carried out among MBA students at the 20 top business schools in the United States.
The characteristic they selected most often as "most important" was "results- oriented". Furthermore, 60 per cent of the students said that executives who have been operating at this time of mass downsizing make good role models. Similarly, while half of the executives strongly agreed that corporations had a responsibility to limit their negative impact on the environment, only a quarter of students felt that way.
In addition, 52 per cent of the executives - but only 35 per cent of MBA students - strongly agreed that a corporate leader's responsibility is to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and local communities.
Mr Dyckman thinks this outcome may have something to do with MBA students seeing things with greater certainty than those already involved in management. "They'll find out that running a business is not as simple as sitting in a class," he said on a recent visit to London.
He also suspects that it might be connected with MBA students' focus on acquiring analytical rather than soft skills. "The results may indicate that experience cultivates a broader definition of corporate responsibility. It would be interesting to survey the MBA students 20 years from now and see if their positions have changed."
But in an effort to make a contribution to building the sort of rounded leaders that are deemed necessary for business in the years ahead, Cornell is launching a fellowship - the Park Leadership Fellows programme - that will award full tuition and a stipend to 30 outstanding students beginning next autumn.
Initially, the foundation - funded by the sale of a business that was founded close to Cornell in Ithaca, New York State - is putting up $2m. But Mr Dyckman points out that "if we do it right, they'll renew it".
He added: "In selecting Park Leadership Fellows, we will seek well-rounded, high-impact individuals who will have not only exceptional leadership skills and unusual intellectual curiosity, but also have demonstrated a commitment to community service and a concern for social and environmental issues"nReuse content