Innovations That Inspire

Bringing Ethical Leadership to Life Through Virtual Reality

Recognition Year(s): 2018
School: Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
Location: United States

Innovation Statement

This immersive learning system develops skills that are difficult to accomplish through traditional styles, including the ability to remain flexible, pick up on non-verbal cues, and act with greater confidence.

Call to Action

What would happen if you could drop into a 360-degree virtual reality leadership simulation with a cast of professional actors, all scripted from a classic case study? Also, imagine that the decision you get to choose from and make are based on the “four avenues” approach, as conceived by Kenneth Goodpaster, to ethical decision-making (interests, rights, duties, and virtues), and every choice you make is met with larger-than-life consequences that require additional decisions.

That is what this initiative allows participants to experience. The ability to transform learners into leaders who are capable of adapting to complex situations is dependent upon how much educators and mentors can expose the learners to real-life challenges without jeopardizing their confidence.

However, case studies and virtual reality are not enough for learning to be transformative in this way. To take that next step, the Center for Ehtical Organizations has integrated a complementary learning process that stretches a learner’s ability to reflect on how well their existing habits of mind serve decision-making in the heat of the moment. The applied learning system utilizes transformative learning theory, which requires learners to be:

  • Faced with a real-life, disorienting dilemma that shakes the foundation of their assumptions, and creates pause for deep introspection.
  • Led in reflecting upon the validity of taken-for-granted assumptions and their ability to guide ethical decisions.
  • Included in dialogue with others who have experienced the same dilemma, so that in solidarity they may share divergent perspectives, integrate new frameworks, and develop an appreciation for the overall complexity of organizational life.

Innovation Description

First, learners download the virtual reality (VR) app to their smartphone before placing it inside of a 14 USD lightweight viewing device (Google Cardboard). Clicking a button on top of the device starts the simulation and allows learners to point and click on the decision they wish to make. This prompts a video of the consequences and another set of options.

In the spirit of “choose your own adventure” books, a simulation may be run several times, yielding multiple outcomes. This enables participants to test Goodpaster’s four avenues approach to making ethical decisions, which includes an analysis of interests, rights, duties, and virtues.

Though the avenues are not stated explicitly in the simulation, they are translated into real options and explored through a theoretical lens after the simulation has concluded. At the end of the simulation, learners watch an interview with the person about whom the case study was actually written.

Any given simulation can take between 10 to 15 minutes. Given that there are four avenues per case, total engagement time is approximately one hour. The VR experience is followed by individual journaling prompts and dialogue with classmates.

The first case study that was chosen to simulate includes a dilemma faced by Medtronic as they attempted to enter China’s medical device market. Before a deal was signed to build a factory in Shanghai, the local utility company asked for an additional 250,000 USD to run electricity. The learner must first decide whether to walk away from the deal, eat the cost, compromise, or stall.


Two years from now, it is estimated that over 80 percent of the U.S. workforce will be composed of millennials whose informal learning and development has likely been shaped heavily by smartphone technology that is almost always at their fingertips.

In order to create a leap in value for this population¬—in the context of MBA programs, organizational onboarding, and leadership development¬—innovation integrates familiar technology with a tested pedagogy to make leadership development accessible, transformative, and scalable. Simulations can be used by learners in a classroom setting, blended format, or entirely online.

This immersive learning system serves to develop leadership skills that are difficult to accomplish through traditional learning, including the ability to reflect in the midst of action, remain flexible in ambiguous situations, regulate emotion, pick up on non-verbal cues, gain comfort with making and learning from mistakes, and act with greater confidence.

The proof of concept is currently available online so that interested parties can get a sense of what this experience is like. As the program gains funding, the system will include high-end technology and actors for a crisp and nuanced experience.

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