Timothy Fort: The Eveleigh Chair in Business Ethics at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University

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Timothy Fort holds the Eveleigh Chair in Business Ethics at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University where he coordinates the required undergraduate courses in business ethics and teaches courses in Business Law and in Business Ethics.  He serves on the Board of Directors of the Kelley Executive Education Foundation.  

His primary research identity pertains to issues of ethical corporate culture and the relationship between ethical business and sustainable peace.  He has authored five research major books (Oxford University Press, 2001; Cambridge University Press, 2003 (with Cindy Schipani); Cambridge, 2007, Yale University Press, 2008 and Stanford University Press, 2015).   He is currently writing another book for Stanford on corporate culture with Alexandra, Countess of Frederiksborg (Denmark).  His Business, Integrity and Peace won the Best Book Award from the Academy of Management’s Social Issues in Business Section.   He also authored three textbooks for West Publishing, one on Business Law with Stephen Presser and two solely authored textbooks on Business Ethics.  He has two new books, one on dogs and one on sports, written and looking for a publisher, and two early start-of-the-career books (that he’d mostly like to forget).

Fort holds his PhD from Northwestern University where he also received his JD.  His M.A. and B.A. are from the University of Notre Dame.  He has received fifteen research awards from the Academy of Management, the Society of Business Ethics, and The Academy of Legal Studies of Business.  He  has served on the editorial board of The Academy of Management Review, Business Ethics Quarterly, and The American Business Law Journal as well as having won best teaching awards three times.  He won a Faculty Pioneer Award from the Aspen Institute in 2003.  He has authored more than seventy academic articles, book chapters, and book reviews.

From 2005-2013 he held the Lindner-Gambal Chair in Business Ethics at the George Washington University School of Business.  There, he founded and served as the Executive Director of the Institute for Corporate Responsibility and was Academic Director for the STAR EMBA Program.  While at GW, he also served as Interim Dean for the Undergraduate Program and Department Chair of Strategic Management and Public Policy.  He also organized and co-taught a course with then-Federal Reserve Chair, Ben Bernanke.  From 1994-2005 he was a professor at the University of Michigan where he also held the Bank One Assistant Professorship of Business Administration and won the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award from the Academy of Legal Studies in Business.

What do you do best?

From a skills perspective, I can’t imagine a line of work that fits me better than being a professor.  I didn’t plan on becoming one; I stumbled into it.  I sang a guest solo at a church thirty years ago.  The department chair of a local college thought I sang well and asked me to teach a business law course.  That’s how I got my career break.  It took me two minutes into that first class to know I had to do it for the rest of my life.  So, being a professor is what I do best.

A bit more specifically, I am very good at listening to a variety of perspectives and being able to weave a narrative on the spot that the parties agree to and feel respects their various viewpoints.  That’s a classroom skill, but it has been very helpful in other leadership positions.

I’m also good at listening to what’s going on around me.  I have made quite a few good (and quite a few bad) decisions in my life.  But the “great decisions” were ones I really didn’t make.  They were unexpected turns of fate that simply smacked me in the face.  Getting that first job teaching because of my singing.  I had decided to say no to the interview request for what became my first tenure-track offer (from Michigan) and was astonished to hear the word “yes” come out of my head.  Having to go to Washington because I had gotten sick and my lungs couldn’t take Ann Arbor cold weather and the ending up co-teaching with Ben Bernanke.  There have been several of these moments; I have had just barely enough sense to hear and see those moments.

Somewhat related, I am good at following my nose on research topics and, when I get one, I’m like one of my Basset Hounds who just won’t let the trail go.  Some good friends cautioned me about taking on my business and peace research.  No one had gone down that road and no one could see where it might end.  It could ruin my career, I was told.  But the topic just possessed me and I had to go after it.  People said similar things about my work on spirituality and business and also on mediating institutions.  I feel the same way about a new effort I’d like to take on with respect to music and corporate culture.  I don’t add on to existing research as much as I develop something entirely different.  

What makes you the best?

I don’t think I am “The” best.  I used to compete for awards and I’ve won far more than my share over the years, but I’ve never considered myself “the” best.  I think I am in an upper tier of people in my field and that is honor enough.  How can one possibly say that one professor (or school) is #1 versus #6?  It’s nonsense.  That’s even true of “championships.”  Often times, the ultimate winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA Basketball champion barely made it into the playoffs.  It’s not so much that they were the “best”; they just got hot at the right time.

What makes me a good teacher is that I love what I do and we have fun in my classes.  I try to figure out what is going on in students’ heads so I can adjust and meet them where they are.  I sing to my students, we watch film, we role-play and we talk about just about anything.  I’m not a stand-behind-the-podium kind of guy.  

I’m also a shade dumber than most professors.   Most of my colleagues are super-smart and can understand things easily.  I have to work a little harder, but that means I can explain things a little better to everyone else (because I had to figure out how to explain things myself.)

What makes me a good researcher is my comfort with interdisciplinary work and my willingness to take big risks with my career.  I have a law degree and also a PhD in Theology with a Business cognate.  Most of my major writing has delved deeply into anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and now even music.  I am either inherently interdisciplinary or psychologically confused (or some of both).  Along with that, I’m not afraid to hit the send button.  I don’t over-edit (though I should do more than I do) and so I err on the side of sparking new ideas more than aiming for something perfect.  

What makes me a good colleague is that I think everyone I work with realizes that I am genuinely thrilled with others’ successes.  Frankly, when you can find joy in another person’s well-being, life’s a lot easier.

How will you stay the best?

I think three factors are most important.  First, when I was younger and played sports, my training regimen included running wind sprints until I either passed out or threw up.  I pretty much continue to practice the office version of my old sports training.  Subject to my third factor, that work ethic will help me continue to grow.  

Second, I like to put myself into new positions that are outside my comfort zone.  I took a doctoral class in music and philosophy this year.  I know enough about both to follow what was being said, but not enough to critically analyze anything.  I was way out of my comfort zone intellectually and it was a hoot.  It challenged me in ways I wasn’t expecting and I want to continue the courses because it will push me to grow.

Third, to stay attentive to what the Spirit(s) of the universe are telling me.  Usually, they speak through my family, but they are unpredictable and I have to stop, shut up, and listen because they are smarter than I am.

Biggest success? 

From an academic career standpoint, it would be in launching a new scholarly initiative on business and peace.  There had been very little written about the topic before the turn of the century.  Much had been written about economics (or trade) and peace, but little on how the actions of businesses themselves play a role in fostering peace.  That topic became the focus of four of my books, almost twenty articles, and a dozen conferences I organized.  It is neat to see this topic now as an established, albeit still young, new scholarly stream that is now spilling over into government, civil society, and business.

When I was in my twenties, another guy my age and I formed a non-profit to build a retirement center for our tiny town of 800 people. Doesn’t sound like much, but it had been talked about for decades because folks would have to move an hour or more away from their families and friends when they grew older.   Nothing had happened to build the center, but Keith and I were just too young and ill-informed to know we couldn’t’ do it.  Well, we did it.  It kept families together and became the biggest employer in town.  I’ll never forget the hearing before the state health board in Chicago, where we presented our petition for state approval.  All the other petitioners were experienced, high-powered lawyers and corporate types and here came Keith and I looking like we were barely out of high school.  The commissioners all sat up to see who these kids in front of them were, but in the end, they said it was the most thorough and convincing presentation they’d seen in years.  That was really fun and it really helped a lot of people in our hometown.

There was also one moment that I truly treasure.  It came in an MBA class when I taught at the University of Michigan.  All the students were in their final weeks before graduating.  All had jobs lined up.  A visiting professor sat in on my class and was surprised at how active the students were in working on their final research papers.  So he asked them, why they were working so hard when they really didn’t have to do anything anymore?  Several pointed to me across the room and said “no professor has ever treated us so respectfully and cared so much about us and none of us want to let him down.”

I know some professors like to conduct their classes so that students have the experience of what life is like “in the real world.” That’s a legitimate approach.   But who makes the real world?  We’re not passive creatures; we are active subjects so we can fashion a way that the world works.  I want my students to have a model of what it is like for a leader to treat people well and to know what that feels like so they think about leading that way as well.

Most challenging moment?

Family losses are the most challenging moments.  That’s true for me with respect to my family and also in the times in my career, particularly when I practiced law, when clients dealt with life-and-death issues.  In my third month of my law practice, a client asked me if life support should be removed on their terminally ill parent.  Law School doesn’t teach you much about that kind of counseling.  

Less existentially crucial, early in my career as a young lawyer, I landed a big client.  2-3 years into representing him and his company, he demanded that I fudge his tax returns.  I responded that I could no longer represent him.  Fortunately, the senior partner of the firm was my father, who backed me 100%.  I tell the story to my students and laughingly add that if Dad had given any trouble about the decision, I would have told my Mom and then we would have been dealing with the moral authority of the family!   Frankly, it was not a difficult decision, but it was not enjoyable having to kick your biggest client out of your office.  

On a more fun note, I sang the National Anthem, as an acapella solo, for the Chicago White Sox the day after they clinched the 1984 Division Championship.  All the players lined up along the third-base line before I took the microphone at home plate before 42,000 people.  I was 26.  Stage fright doesn’t exist after a performance like that!

And on one more, even more fun note (though more of a humorous one than a challenge).  I use a method where I have students undertake a mid-course evaluation of the class.  We agree at the beginning of class of what is important and then a group of them take over the class halfway through and we talk about how things are going.  In one class, the students said that “we really like the way Professor Fort…well…..well….well, its like you are the Anti-Christ!”  “I’m the Anti-Christ?” I said.  “Yeah, well, you know when all the argument is on one side and so you just take the other position?”  “You mean I play the Devil’s Advocate?”  I asked.  “Yeah, yeah, that’s the term.  We like that.”

Some of my colleagues say that I treat my students a little too well, but I respond that I’ll bet they have never been called, and it was a test of my composure, the Anti-Christ to their face!

What are your aspirations?

Personal: I have three kids, 14, 11, and 8 so raising them and getting them through school is my primary aspiration.

While it has professional dimensions, to be sure, I’d like my writing to touch on themes that are more relatable to a larger population.  I love writing about business and peace and corporate culture, but I’d like to write about sports, dogs, and music too.  I think it will have more impact and I like the topics in their own right.  I really have no retirement plans.  I am fortunate to have a very flexible job and so I’d love to go as long as I can.  I was a little worried when I switched from MBA and PhD students to undergrads two years ago.  I am clearly a generation (or three) older than the undergrads, but my student evaluations have been above the 95% mark so I guess the old boy still has game with the twenty year olds!

Business:  To the extent my “business” is writing and teaching, the above covers some of this question, but I would be interested in serving on a corporate board of directors.  I have served on many small boards over the years.  Just like my recent experience with music, I think I’d have a contribution to make to a board, but I also think it would stretch me in ways that would force me to grow.  

What fascinates you? 

What doesn’t?  There are so many interesting things going on from philosophy to dogs to politics to music to anthropology to sports and on and on.  I flip from one to the other all the time, giving one a rest from one as I think about another.  

Favorite Motto: 

We have no breaking point.  (Ara Parseghian, former head football coach at Notre Dame); You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first (from my old baseball playing days).

Favorite People: 

Assuming you are looking for folks outside my family, who always take top honors… Ronald Reagan (whom I met when I was 11) and Robert Kennedy (now, those two come from different political spectra!) were my heroes growing up.  Gandhi, Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. constitute my key moral heroes.  From an entertainment perspective, give me Julie Andrews, Harrison Ford, and Jennifer Aniston any time!

Favorite Places: 

The farm where I grew up and still own with my siblings and the Grotto at the University of Notre Dame.  On a less spiritual level, I loved my years living and working in Washington, DC and in Chicago.   From a travel perspective, I love Paris, Prague, and Sydney.

Favorite Products: 

Hmm.  Got me on that one.  Not sure there is just one or two, but I range from liking dog leashes to butter pecan (or peppermint) ice cream to cell phones to pharmaceuticals that make me well to avocados to a neat thing that erases kid and dog marks from the walls in our house.  Books of course, I love.

Current Passions:

I love dogs.  We currently have three puppies (which suggests that my wife  and I need psychological help).  I love music.  I have luckily found myself on the campus of what many people regard as the best school of music in the world: Jacobs School of Music.  So I am pursuing the study of music when my job allows.  I am a nut about Notre Dame football.