A growing body of academic literature about management consulting, written from the critical perspective, raises questions about the ethics of management consulting practice. Management consultants routinely describe themselves as professionals (Harvey et al. 2017), and there is a large body of literature on professional ethics that can shed light on the ethics of management consulting. Nevertheless, management consultancy is different from established professions such as medicine, law and accountancy, and literature that focuses specifically on management consultancy as a distinct kind of practice from an ethical perspective is sparse. A paradox lies at the heart of management consulting, which distinguishes it sharply from the established professions. Although management consultancy is routinely described as a knowledge-intensive industry (Alvesson 2000), there is no generally accepted body of management consultancy knowledge (Fincham 1999; Visscher 2006). Moreover, whereas members of the established professions form communities who share their knowledge for the benefit of the people whom they serve (Pellegrino 1989), management consultancy knowledge is typically proprietary and constitutes a basis of competition between management consultancy firms. The pressure on management consultants to provide relevant, practical assistance to their clients at the pace at which managers have to make decisions inhibits the deployment of a verifiable body of knowledge (Kieser and Leiner 2009). Much management consultancy knowledge is socially constructed, and may take the form of management fashions whose benefits are not susceptible to objective evaluation (Nikolova et al. 2009; Wright et al. 2012). The ability of management consultants to secure the trust of clients, in circumstances in which the outputs of their work are frequently beyond the reach of objective assessment, is a central requirement in management consulting (Glückler and Ambrüster 2003). These distinctive characteristics give rise to ethical questions in respect of management consulting that are substantially distinct from those arising in normal professional settings. This paper seeks to examine these questions, using Aristotle’s (1934) Nicomachean Ethics as a guide, in combination with literature on the ethics of the professions that builds upon Aristotle’s work. Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Thrace; he was the son of the physician to the King of Macedon (Russell 1967) and, perhaps because of this, he frequently draws upon analogies from medical ethics in his work. Management consultancy has some points of comparison with medicine in the sense that it too is a kind of helping profession, and this paper draws particularly on comparisons between the ethics of management consulting and medical ethics, in order to identify and shed light upon the distinctive ethical characteristics of management consulting.

Acknowledging that it is impossible to provide a precise definition of good and ethical action, Aristotle sets out to provide a target so that, by aiming at it, we may have a better chance than otherwise of shooting in the right direction. This paper draws upon the Nicomachean Ethics so as to set up a target at which, like good archers, management consultants may aim, so as to shoot for ethical practice. In applying ideas from virtue ethics in the Aristotelian tradition to the professions, Pellegrino (1989, 1995), a more contemporary scholar of the ethics of medicine and other established professions, acknowledges the problems involved in using virtue ethics as the basis for a general ethical theory. The virtue ethics approach focuses attention on the kind of person that someone needs to be in order to be good. Problems arise from the circularity of virtue ethics arguments that assert that, on the one hand, the virtuous person does what is good and, on the other hand, that the good is what the virtuous person does. While acknowledging these difficulties, however, Pellegrino (1989, 1995) argues that they can, to a large extent, be overcome in respect of the ethics of the professions, such as medical ethics, because there are fewer difficulties in defining what is good in the medical profession than in human life in general. It will be argued in this paper that the virtue ethics approach has promise also as a way of examining management consulting. In the absence of any generally accepted body of knowledge of the kind that is used in the established professions to assess the quality of a professional’s work, clients and other stakeholders must rely heavily on management consultants’ character to assess the help that they provide. Aristotle (1934, p.3) begins the Nicomachean Ethics by observing that ‘every art or science aims at some good’, so that ‘for instance, the end of the science of medicine is health’, and that the practitioners of any art or science have their own particular function. If professionals’ functions, and the ends towards which their work is directed, can be defined, it should also be possible to define the virtues that would enable them to be good practitioners of their profession. What then is the function of the management consultant? How should a management consultant act in order to be a good management consultant? Aristotle (1934, p. 149) also draws attention to the boundaries between practitioners’ and clients’ responsibilities, pointing out for example that it may be the case that a patient’s ‘illness is voluntary, in the sense of being due to intemperate living and neglect of the doctors’ advice’. Where then does the boundary lie between the ethical responsibilities of the management consultant and those of the client and other stakeholders with an interest in good management consulting? Each of these three questions is considered in turn below.

What Is the Function of a Management Consultant?

The process of consultation clearly lies at the heart of the function of a management consultant. Aristotle (1934, p. 137) provides a specific observation in the Nicomachean Ethics on the nature of consultation, which points the way towards defining what that function is:

Deliberation then is employed in matters which, though subject to rules that generally hold good, are uncertain in their issue; or where the issue is indeterminate, and where, when the matter is important, we take others into our deliberations, distrusting our own capacity to decide.

The nature of deliberation (bouleusis), and of the closely connected intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis), which is sometimes translated as ‘practical wisdom’, are central themes in Aristotle’s work and in scholarly commentaries on it. Brief though this passage is, therefore, it connects the topic of consultation with some of the major ideas in Aristotle’s work.

A number of propositions as to the function of the management consultant flow from Aristotle’s observation. First, management consultants assist clients who are uncertain as to how to act in important matters. Second, management consultants assist clients who ‘[distrust their] own capacity to decide’. Third, management consultants are taken into their clients’ deliberations, so that they have a privileged position in the clients’ decision-making that is weighted unduly towards neither the clients nor the consultants. Fourth, management consultants must exercise prudence (phronesis). Aristotle (1934, p. 337) says that ‘it is held to be the mark of a prudent (phronimos) man to be able to deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for himself’, so management consultants will only be of use to their clients if they have the intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis). Fifth, the work of management consultants is focused essentially – but not entirely exclusively, as discussed below - on implementation, that is, on means and not on ends, because as Aristotle states (1934, p.137), ‘we deliberate not about ends, but about means’.

The scope of Aristotle’s concept of prudence (phronesis) is the subject of debate. Aristotle appears to say that the exercise of prudence (phronesis) is a purely rational activity that is concerned with determining how particular ends are to be achieved, and that the desire for those ends stems solely from the non-rational, moral virtues (Moss 2011). This suggests that the domain of prudence (phronesis) is limited to matters of implementation. While Aristotle is clearly committed to the distinction between the intellectual and the moral virtues, prudence (phronesis) may yet have crucial roles in the detailed specification of the ends for which the non-rational, moral virtues have produced the desire (Irwin 1975; Wiggins 1975–76). On Aristotle’s account, moral virtue involves striking a mean between opposed moral errors, an idea that is discussed in more detail below; someone may have a general wish to show liberality (eleutheriotes) to another who is in need, but it is a matter for prudence (phronesis) to determine how much to give so as to strike the mean between the opposite errors of meanness (aneleutheria) and prodigality (asotia) (Moss 2011). Thus, it seems reasonable to suppose that there is a role for prudence (phronesis) in the detailed specification of the ends for which the moral virtues have produced the desire, and not purely in the means for achieving those ends. The practical realities of management underscore the reasonableness of the proposition that management consultants should not be confined to advising solely on matters of implementation. Whipp et al. (1989) explain organisational change as the outcome of interplay between the content of the change that is to be brought about, the context in which that change is to occur, and the process by which it is to be implemented. When viewed from the perspective of such interdependencies, it is difficult to see how management consultants could reasonably withhold their best advice as to the desirability of the particular ends that their clients have specified (the content of the organisational change), in the presence of problematic means (the processes of organisational change) and an unfavourable context within which to implement them, especially if these might give rise to costs that the ends specified by the client would not justify.

The above five propositions about management consulting may appear to be a matter of plain common sense and applicable, with appropriate adjustments, to the function of any professional person. Not all of them, however, can simply be taken for granted. In relation to the first of these propositions, for example, clients sometimes appoint management consultants, not because they are uncertain how to act, but because they want external experts to legitimise in the minds of other organisation members the action that they have already decided to take (Sturdy et al. 2009). It will be argued later that, while this may be a common practice, it is not an ethical one. The second of these propositions, however, relating to clients ‘distrusting [their] own capacity to decide’ (Aristotle 1934, p.137) highlights a key difference between management consulting and the established professions that has ethical implications. While clients may distrust their capacity to decide because they lack the necessary knowledge and expertise to make a well-informed decision, their self-distrust may equally stem purely from a sense of anxiety or lack of confidence. In other words, the benefits that clients seek from their management consultants may consist of reassurance and moral support rather than accreditable knowledge and expertise (Sturdy 1997). Whereas patients might reasonably expect their doctors to act upon an established body of knowledge, management consultants do not and – by virtue of the nature of their work – could not have access to such a body of knowledge. Several consequences flow from this, which distinguish management consulting from the established professions. There is no generally accepted system of regulation of management consultants (Greiner and Ennsfellner 2010; Harvey et al. 2017; Poulfelt 1997). Management consultants must engage in organisational politics in order to effect change since, in the absence of a body of knowledge through which particular management actions can be validated, intervention in organisational change involves participation in organisational politics in order to secure acceptance of new ideas (Schein 1988). Management consultants must be active in managing their clients’ impressions of themselves and of their work in the absence of objective means of assessing them (Clark and Salaman 1998). Management consultants perform a diverse range of roles, and have a diverse range of relationships with their clients, which is associated with their clients’ perceptions of the extent of their access to scarce, specialist knowledge (O’Mahoney and Markham 2013; Schein 1997). These distinctive characteristics of management consulting are elaborated below.

It might be argued that, just as the end of medicine is health, and the function of the doctor is to cure patients, so the end of management consulting is effective organisational performance, and the function of the management consultant to facilitate improvement in organisational performance. Indeed Schein (1988) specifically suggests the doctor-patient relationship as one model for management consulting. The doctor-patient model, however, assumes the existence of a generally accepted body of knowledge upon which the management consultant will rely in formulating objective advice and plans of action. O’Mahoney and Markham (2013, p.11) highlight the definition of management consultancy adopted by the UK’s Management Consultancies Association, which embodies this assumption:

The creation of value for organisations, through the application of knowledge, techniques and assets, to improve business performance. This is achieved through the rendering of objective advice and/or the implementation of business solutions.

The superficial similarity, however, of the function of the management consultant to that of the doctor cannot be accepted so readily. In the absence of a generally accepted body of management consultancy knowledge, management consultants’ claims to specialist knowledge are largely unverifiable (Fincham 1999; Visscher 2006). Management consulting is widely described as a knowledge-intensive industry (Alvesson 2000), and the use of knowledge management systems is a central feature of management consulting firms’ practices and a basis of competition between them (Hansen et al. 1999). The nature of that knowledge, however, is wholly different from the kind of scientific knowledge that underpins the practice of medicine. Whereas scientists seek knowledge about whether particular propositions are true or false, managers seek relevant and timely knowledge that will help them take practical decisions upon which they must act (Kieser and Leiner 2009). Whereas, for example, scientific knowledge of what is true or false in the areas medicine or engineering has great practical value, the same cannot in general be said of similar knowledge in the field of management (Kieser and Leiner 2009). Some management scholars advocate evidence-based management, which draws inter alia upon systematic reviews of the sort that medical researchers use to bring together the best evidence on medical questions (Briner et al. 2009). While systematic reviews in the field of management science are rigorous, it typically takes many months to complete them, and their outputs are unlikely to be in a form that is immediately accessible or relevant to a manager with a decision to take. The timescales on which managers have to make decisions, and the practical focus of the information that they seek to help make them, constrain the likely value of systematic reviews (or even of rapid evidence assessments) in a management consulting setting. Management consultancy firms use their knowledge management systems to store and disseminate an evolving body of information based on their consulting experience, including standardised methods, tools and techniques for carrying out particular kinds of management consultancy projects, and documentation of particular kinds of consultancy project that the firm has completed (Werr and Stjernberg 2003). These systems enable management consultants to capture learning from their current experiences as they encounter new problems and situations, and in consequence to be conversant with current management developments and trends, but that learning is not susceptible to the kind of rigorous review that would enable it to be embodied in a generally accepted corpus of scientific knowledge.

The absence of a generally accepted body of management consultancy knowledge has contributed to the failure of attempts to regulate the management consulting industry (Glückler and Ambrüster 2003; Harvey et al. 2017; Kirkpatrick et al. 2012). Greiner and Ennsfellner (2010) record a claim that simply being recruited by McKinsey & Co. is sufficient to confer professional status on a consultant, while Furusten (2013) argues that management consultancy is a modern form of profession whereby the claim to professional status depends largely on market acceptance. Clients have to determine for themselves whether or not to trust particular management consultancy firms and their consultants, and there is no widely recognised system of regulation upon which they can rely in determining where to place their trust.

In advancing the doctor-patient model, Schein (1988) draws attention to some of its limitations. These include the likelihood that organisational politics may lead ‘patients’ to distort the information that they give to their ‘doctors’ in pursuit of purposes that may serve the interests of individual organisation members but not those of the organisation as a whole. It might be argued that this limitation of the doctor-patient model is not a very serious one. If doctors have made the best interventions that they can on the basis of the information that their patients have given them, they have performed their function conscientiously, and their patients’ failure to improve is to that extent their own voluntary choice. As Pettigrew (2012) points out, however, organisational change is a political process, involving the delegitimisation of old ideas and the legitimisation of new ones, in which organisation members may be expected to pursue their own particular visions of what is good both for their organisation and for themselves. There is neither truth nor falsehood in organisational change, only ideas that are either adopted or discarded. Organisational politics cannot be dismissed as an incidental distraction in the pursuit of improved organisational performance. They are the very stuff of organisational change, and management consultants have to engage with them if they are to be an effective force for organisational performance improvement.

The outputs of management consultancy are to a large extent intangible, and clients must therefore rely heavily on subjective impressions to evaluate what their benefits may be (Alvesson et al. 2009; Fincham 1999). By contrast with medical science, there is no management science that can evaluate with any precision the effect that a particular management consultancy intervention has had. In the absence of objective means of demonstrating their contribution, management consultants devote effort to managing the impressions that their clients form of themselves and their work (Alvesson et al. 2009; Clark and Salaman 1998; Fincham 1999; Glückler and Ambrüster 2003; Werr and Styhre 2003; Wright and Kitay 2002). Sturdy (1997) argues that managers’ anxieties about the effects on their organisations and on their own careers of failing to keep up with current management thinking can be important in opening their minds to the impression that they need management consultancy support. The appeal of particular management fashions may flourish in managers’ minds in the absence of objective means of appraising their value (Molloy and Whittington 2005; Wright et al. 2012). Glückler and Ambrüster (2003) highlight the importance of trust in clients’ decisions on appointing management consultants and, as a consequence, the importance for management consultants of forming the impression in clients’ minds that they are to be relied upon and trusted (Kitay and Wright 2004; Maister 1993). Consultants’ use of impression management skills may be important in influencing clients to form a fair and reasonable view of what management consultancy interventions can do for them and it may equally, of course, influence them to adopt an unjustifiably favourable view (Clark and Salaman 1998).

There is great diversity in the kinds of work that management consultants perform and the relationships that arise between management consultants and their clients. O’Mahoney and Markham (2013) observe, for example, that consultants’ roles include providing expert advice and assistance to clients who lack the consultants’ expertise; acting as coaches or facilitators who help clients to identify and act upon the issues facing their organisations; forming friendships with senior executives that involve relationships of mutual support and learning; being actors in organisational politics who assist their clients in winning political battles with their peers; and often simply providing ‘pairs of hands’ to perform work which the staff of the client organisation are too busy to do. Management consultants may also have to interact with many different types of clients in a large organisation. Schein (1997, pp. 202–203) identifies several different client roles, including ‘contact clients’ who establish the initial relationship with the consultant, ‘intermediate clients’ who become involved only after that initial contact has been made, ‘primary clients’ who are the managers with responsibility for addressing the issues with which the consultancy project is concerned, ‘unwitting clients’ whom the consultancy project will affect but who are unaware of this, ‘indirect clients’ who know they will be affected but of whom the consultants are unaware, and ‘ultimate clients’ who have fundamental interests in the consultancy project as stakeholders in it. In a long-running project a range of different people may perform client roles at various times, and even people who are actually opposed to the organisational change towards which the consultancy project is directed may become clients of it. Coalitions of managers who are either in favour of a particular organisational change or opposed to it may enlist management consultants to support them in their cause (Alvesson et al. 2009). While the expertise of management consultants may sometimes give them power and influence over their clients, just as doctors may seem to have power and influence over their patients, competition among management consultancy firms, questioning of consultants’ claims to specialist expertise, and sometimes the relatively lowly status of the work that they are asked to do, may place them in subservient roles and induce them to accept long hours and other unfavourable conditions of work that employees of the client organisation would not tolerate (Alvesson and Kärreman 2004; Alvesson and Robertson 2006; Fincham 1999; Kitay and Wright 2004; Nikolova et al. 2009).

Against the background of the above discussion, the function of the management consultant might be defined as being to:

Advise and assist clients, as a practical, intelligent partner in their decision-making processes, on the detailed specification, and means of attaining, important objectives that the clients wish to achieve, in circumstances in which the clients feel uncertain how to act.

The good management consultant will fulfil this function to an excellent standard. It follows from the foregoing discussion that, as a practical, intelligent partner, the management consultant may be expected to be knowledgeable about current management trends that are relevant to the clients’ issues, and experienced in the kinds of management consultancy intervention sought by the clients. The management consultant would not normally, however, be expected to have access to scientific knowledge - or any other generally accepted body of knowledge - of direct relevance to the intervention to be made that could assure its success in the clients’ particular circumstances. It also follows that the management consultant would support the clients in making decisions and acting upon them, whatever the source of the clients’ uncertainty, for example both as an adviser with specialist technical knowledge and as a facilitator with coaching skills. In order to perform their role, management consultants must command the trust of their clients in the absence of access to any generally accepted body of management consultancy knowledge. The consequences for the ethical obligations of the management consultant of the distinctive characteristics of management consulting discussed above are considered in the following section.

How Should a Management Consultant Act in Order to Be a Good Management Consultant?

Aristotle (1934) provides a catalogue of the intellectual and moral virtues that apply to people in general. He distinguishes sharply between the intellectual and the moral virtues, in that the intellectual virtues may be acquired through instruction and experience, whereas we acquire the moral virtues through habituation. Pellegrino (1995, 2002) draws upon Aristotle’s work in defining virtues that should be expected of medical practitioners. Comparison of the function and the virtues of medical practitioners with those of the management consultant offers a basis for assessing how far the virtues of management consultancy are similar to or distinct from those of medicine as an example of an established profession. Such a comparison, drawing upon Pellegrino’s analysis, is set out below, together with a proposition as to what the virtues of the management consultant should be. In discussing the moral virtues, Aristotle advances his doctrine of the mean, which proposes that the moral virtues should be regarded as forming part of a triad consisting of the moral virtue itself and two opposed vices – one of deficiency and one of excess – just as liberality (eleutheriotes) may be associated with the opposed vices of meanness (aneleutheria) and prodigality (asotia). The potential value of this doctrine of the mean, for the management consultant who is shooting for ethical practice, is also discussed below.

The Virtues of the Management Consultant

Pellegrino (1995) defines the function of the medical practitioner, as a basis for defining virtue in that profession, in terms of three characteristics of the doctor-patient relationship. The characteristics that he defines are, first, patients’ establishment of themselves as such by declaring that they believe that they are ill; second, the medical practitioners’ promise that they have the knowledge to help the patients and will use that knowledge in the patients’ interests; and third, the medical practitioners’ active, knowledge-based intervention to cure the patients. The relevance to management consulting of Pellegrino’s propositions as to virtue in the medical profession depends on the similarities and differences between management consulting and the medical profession in respect of the relationship between the client and the helper. The characteristics of the doctor-patient and management consultant-client relationship are compared in Table 1.

Table 1 Comparison between doctor-patient and management consultant-client relationships

Management consultants’ relationships with their clients differ from those of doctors in several ways. Their clients in any consultancy engagement are likely to be numerous, and divergent in their expectations and desires in respect of the relationship. The clients’ reasons for appointing consultants may stem from their attraction to a fashionable but unverified set of ideas about how businesses should be run rather than, or as well as, a specific opportunity or threat facing their organisation. Management consultants make use of information about how to intervene in clients’ organisations that is based on their firm’s contemporary or recent experience with other clients. This information is likely to be proprietary, may be subject to restrictions of use for reasons of client confidentiality and, while up to date, is unlikely to have been verified scientifically or to be susceptible to assessment in relation to any generally accepted body of knowledge.

This comparative analysis suggests certain differences between the doctor-patient and management consultant-client relationship as to what constitutes virtue in each. Pellegrino (1995, 2002) advances a number of propositions as to the virtues of a doctor in the light of his analysis of the function of the medical practitioner, which are similar to propositions that Pellegrino (1989) advances elsewhere in respect of other established professions, including the law. These propositions are set out in Table 2, alongside a summary of ways in which the virtues of a management consultant might differ from them as a consequence of differences in their respective functions, and the generic virtues advanced by Aristotle (1934) that have informed Pellegrino’s analysis.

Table 2 Aristotle’s generic virtues, the doctor’s virtues, and limitations in relation management consulting

This comparative analysis of human virtues in general, the specific virtues of doctors, and the applicability of the virtues of doctors in management consulting, highlights several distinct ethical characteristics of management consulting. First, although superior knowledge and expertise may sometimes place management consultants in a position of power relative to their clients, this is by no means always the case (Sturdy 1997). Moreover, unlike doctors’ patients, clients have realistic choices that they may make as to whether to employ consultants at all and, if so, which ones. Second, in an organisation of any size, management consultants may engage with large numbers of clients with divergent views and interests so that, by contrast with the situation of individual patients, determining what outcome will be for the good of the clients is complex. Moreover, while management consultants may be expected to empathise with their clients in their concerns, this expectation is weaker than in the case of doctors, because of the number and diversity of their clients, and the typically less direct effect of their concerns on their personal well-being. Third, management consultants enter into commercial contracts with their clients through which the interests of both parties may be served, and in these circumstances management consultants do not face the same obligation to ‘go the extra mile’ for their clients, irrespective of financial gain in return, that doctors might feel in circumstances in which their patients need more than the usual service. Fourth, management consultants necessarily rely on unscientific knowledge (Nikolova et al. 2009; Wright et al. 2012) so, providing the extent to which clients can rely on the effectiveness of their consultants’ help is made transparent, it is reasonable for them to intervene in clients’ organisations despite having less certain knowledge of the likely outcome than would be obligatory in the medical profession. There are, at the same time, several significant similarities. First, management consultants must earn the trust of their clients, and must perform their work in the way that they undertake to their clients that they will perform it. Second, they must approach their consultancy projects with a clear intent to do good for their clients. Third, they must not give priority to their own interests over those of their clients in carrying out their consultancy projects. Fourth, they should be willing to take reasonable risks for the good of their clients by intervening boldly where necessary when that might expose them to moderate reputational and legal risks. In the light of this analysis, the virtues that a good management consultant might be expected to display are those set out in Table 3.

Table 3 Proposed virtues of the management consultant

Aiming for the Mean

Aristotle’s (1934) doctrine of the mean provides a basis for elaborating the virtues of the management consultant in greater detail, and providing some guidance as to how the management consultant can shoot for ethical practice. Aristotle (1934, p.99) suggests that moral virtue is a disposition in respect of feelings that is a mean between two vicious extremes, so that, for example:

In regard to giving and getting money, the mean is Liberality; the excess and deficiency are Prodigality and Meanness, but the prodigal man and the mean man exceed and fall short in opposite ways to one another: the prodigal exceeds in giving and is deficient in getting, whereas the mean man exceeds in getting and is deficient in giving.

While giving this general guidance, he acknowledges that some acts, such as theft and murder, are always wrong, and no amount of striving for a moderate amount of thievery or murderousness can set matters right. It might be said that the notion of excess – of acquisitiveness or of violence – are bound up in those acts.

Losin (1987) draws attention to Aristotle’s reference to the mean ‘relative to us’, arguing from this that the determination of where the mean lies depends upon the particular individual concerned. Thus, in aiming for liberality, management consultants who are by nature very grasping, that is, deficient in liberality (eleutheriotes), face the opposite challenge to those who are by nature neglectful about money, that is, excessive in liberality (eleutheriotes). Brown (1997) argues, however, that this takes the phrase ‘relative to us’ too far, and that Aristotle simply means ‘relative to us as human beings’. In other words, a person of moral virtue would locate the mean where someone possessed of the intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis) would locate it.

Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean has often been challenged. Hursthouse (1980–81) argues that some of Aristotle’s virtues are simply matters of judgement and not dispositions in respect of feelings at all. Thus, she suggests Aristotle’s virtue of greatness of soul (megalopsychia), said to lie at a mean between vanity (chaunotes) and smallness of soul (mikropsychia), is essentially a matter of exercising good judgement as to one’s worth. Moreover, Hursthouse (1980–81) argues that while some virtues may, incidentally, be capable of being described in terms of deficiency or excess, they are in essence matters of having the right disposition in respect of a feeling and not of hitting a mean between opposites. Thus, she suggests that courage (andreia) is in essence a matter of having the right disposition in respect of confidence, and the fact that it is possible to identify deficiency and excess in respect of it, that is, cowardice (deilia) and rashness (thrasos), is purely incidental. Moreover, Hursthouse (1980–81) points out the difficulties of providing satisfactory definitions of deficiencies and excesses, for example, there is a question of whether people who are guilty of cowardice (deilia) feel fear too intensively, too often, towards the wrong objects, or on the wrong occasions.

Others, however, argue that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean has value as general guidance for someone who is aiming to act ethically, as for an archer who is seeking to shoot in the right direction (Koehn 2012; Losin 1987). These writers argue against regarding the mean as a precise point, capable of being located quantitatively between opposed vices. Rather they see it as a general area that is more or less right, and lies between too much and too little. The archer may err in a multiplicity of ways, but each error may yet reasonably be thought of in terms of deficiency or excess (Koehn 2012). Contemporary writers on business ethics have drawn upon Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean as a source of guidance, for example, in understanding why unethical behaviour occurs in organisations (Kaptein 2017). It is argued below that the doctrine of the mean, understood as guidance in locating more or less where ethical practice lies, has practical value for the management consultant who seeks to be an ethical practitioner. The ways in which the doctrine of the mean might inform decision-making on ethical practice in respect of the virtues identified in Table 3 are discussed below, setting aside the virtue of prudence (phronesis) which, as an intellectual virtue, Aristotle (1934) sets apart from the doctrine. A summary of these virtues of the good management consultant, alongside the opposed vices between which they lie and which may serve as practical guidance for the management consultant in shooting in the right direction, is set out in Table 4.

Table 4 The management consultant’s moral virtues as means

Justice: Fulfilling in Full the Promises Embodied in their Contracts with their Clients; Acting in the Overall Interests of their Clients

Aristotle (1934, p.261) says that the word justice (dikaiosyne) is used in two distinct senses. In the first, he defines it as ‘the good of others’, and as the whole of virtue and not just a part of it. In this broad sense, justice (dikaiosyne) can be seen as akin to Pellegrino’s (1995) notion of the doctor’s promise to the patient. Management consultants are not expected to make a promise of the same scope and intensity as that expected of doctors, because their clients will not normally be in the same position of vulnerability as doctors’ patients, and because normally the relationship between consultant and client is more equal and is established on a strictly commercial basis. In the second sense, however, Aristotle (1934, p.289) aligns the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne) with his doctrine of the mean, observing that ‘just conduct is a mean between doing and suffering injustice, for the former is to have too much and the latter to have too little’. Young (1988) argues that injustice (adikia), in this particular sense, is when someone takes something that is more than their due from another to whom it belongs; this distinguishes injustice (adikia) from meanness (aneleutheria), where the interests of another party to whom something is owed are not in question.

Aristotle’s concept of justice (dikaiosyne) in this second, particular sense, as a virtue that motivates people to seek out just distributions of good things and to shun unjust distributions, seems relevant to the management of relationships between consultants and their clients. The concept is, nevertheless, problematic. Williams (1981) points out that unjust acts may stem from a variety of different motives, such as fear, jealousy or greed, and this tends to undermine the claim that justice (dikaiosyne) can be distinguished as a virtue of character in its own right. Urmson (1973) draws attention to the difficulty that if justice (dikaiosyne) is a mean between two extremes there must, improbably, be a vice of deficiency whereby people commit injustice (adikia) by taking less than their due. Urmson (1973) points out, however, that Aristotle’s line of argument becomes somewhat less problematic when shorn of the Christian notions of morality that suffuse the English words, including ‘justice’, into which his work is translated. For Aristotle, the attainment of happiness (eudaimonia), by which he refers to all the good things to which a virtuous person may aspire (Ackrill 1974), is the yardstick against which actions should be appraised. In these circumstances, giving up to others good things to which you are entitled, and they are not, might seem to be an act that misses the mark of justice (dikaiosyne), even if it cannot reasonably be regarded as an outright injustice (adikia). In spite of the awkwardness of Aristotle’s thesis, his ideas provide a reasonable, practical guide in the particular circumstances of management consultants as participants in an equal commercial contract with their clients.

Management consultants should fulfil their obligations in full, and must act for the good of their clients, neither under-servicing nor over-servicing them in respect of their contractual obligations. Sometimes management consultants fail in this because they limit the scope and quality of the work that they do in the interests of keeping within budget or maximising their profit; for example consultants often include transfer of learning to the client organisation’s staff as part of their proposals to their clients, but subsequently deprioritise this activity as budgets tighten, so as to complete the more visible tasks to which contractually they can more easily be held to account (Sturdy et al. 2009). Sometimes they commit the opposite error by over-servicing their clients, for example by succumbing to pressures to provide services that lie beyond the scope of their contracts (Harvey et al. 2017). Unlike doctors on Pellegrino’s (1995) analysis, management consultants have no responsibility to go beyond what is contractually expected of them. In a just relationship, both consultants and their clients will each receive what is their due, neither more nor less, from the contractual relationship between them.

Liberality: Never Giving Priority to their Own Financial or Other Interests over those of their Clients

It is without question that management consultancy is a business, and management consultants have to take a commercial approach to their work if they are to stay in business (Kipping and Clark 2012). Yet many writers have suggested that management consultants tend to be over-fond of money (Bronnenmayer and Wirtz 2016). For example, they are often perceived to be working towards a follow-on contract with their clients as soon as they have been appointed, and as angling their advice so as to please those managers within their client organisations who can give them business (Bloch 1998; Sturdy et al. 2009). The contribution of an excessive appetite for management consulting revenues to the demise of Arthur Andersen, at the time one of the world’s largest management consultancy firms, has been widely documented (Carroll and Shaw 2013; O’Mahoney and Markham 2013).

Maister (1993) observes that two central features of the business strategy of any professional service firm are building strong client relationships, and achieving a reasonably high degree of leverage, that is, a reasonably high ratio of consultants to partners. Both of these features are intimately connected with the way in which management consulting firms make money. Forging strong client relationships increases the chances of repeat business, which reduces both the cost of selling business, by reducing or eliminating competition, and of delivering consultancy projects, by enabling consultants to re-use knowledge gained from previous assignments (Kitay and Wright 2004). Management consultants face pressures to align their advice with the preferences of particular clients because of the commercial value of their relationships with those clients (Czarniawska and Mazza 2003). In order to achieve a high degree of leverage, management consultancy firms seek to routinise their knowledge and methods, and to make them available to consultants across their organisations through their knowledge management systems. Routinisation of knowledge may enable consultants to benefit their clients in ways that would be impossible otherwise; for example, routinising activities that do not require original thought may release more consultancy time for effective action on those that do (Werr et al. 1997). Too often, however, in the economic interests of their firms, management consultants provide only standardised outputs to clients who expect a tailored service (Appelbaum and Steed 2005; Wright et al. 2012).

Quite apart from extreme cases such as that of Arthur Andersen, there are many instances in which management consultants are found to take on work for the sake of the revenues associated with them in circumstances in which the function of the management consultant, as defined above, will not be performed. For example, on Aristotle’s account, consultation is confined to important matters where the clients distrust their own capacity to decide, but Hagenmeyer (2007) points out that in numerous instances this condition of value for money from the consultancy relationship is not met. He points out, for example, that managers in the client organisation may appoint management consultants simply in order to seem to be doing something about a problem when in fact they are not. They may have already decided what they want to do, but nevertheless appoint management consultants in the expectation that they will present that decision as if it were independent management consultancy advice, in order win over resistant colleagues or have the consultants take the blame for an unpopular decision (Alvesson et al. 2009; Wright and Kitay 2002). Management consultants may angle their advice so as to advance the personal agenda and careers of particular managers who are in a position to award business contracts to the consultants (Czarniawska and Mazza 2003; Glückler and Ambrüster 2003; Sturdy et al. 2009). Management consultants sometimes prey upon their clients’ uncertainties and anxieties, about their organisations and their own careers, in order to persuade them to buy consultancy services that offer little benefit, including services involving the latest management fashions and fads (Sturdy 1997). In such situations management consultants show a deficiency of liberality (eleutheriotes) relative to the virtues to be expected of consultants fulfilling their proper function. As Exton (1982, p.218) observes in his discussion of the ethics of management consulting, ‘when the motivation of monetary gain is primary, limitations are placed upon the exercise of all the resources available to us, and excellence suffers’. Management consultants must of necessity be commercially astute, but they face many temptations to exploit their clients for money that they must resist.

Courage: Taking Considered Risks in their Consultancy Interventions in the Interests of their Clients

Management consultants are frequently seen as disrupters of the status quo, and are valued as contributors to innovation (Clegg et al. 2004). Yet innovation involves risks for both clients and consultants (Wright et al. 2012). There is a risk that new ways of doing things may not work in practice, leading to consequential reputational damage to both clients and consultants. For the consultants, irrespective of the effectiveness of an innovation in practice, clients may be unwilling to adopt a disruptive innovation and reject the consultants who propose it. The extent to which management consultants contribute to innovation in practice is sometimes questioned in the literature. Sturdy et al. (2009) observe that the role of management consultants may be simply to legitimise an innovation on which at least some managers in the client organisation may already have agreed. While this may contribute to innovation, in that legitimisation by an outside expert may help to overcome resistance to a proposed innovation, only limited credit can be given to management consultants as innovators for playing such a role. Wright et al. (2012) argue that much of the innovation produced through management consultancy interventions is, in fact, highly standardised in nature, even though consultants themselves often emphasise the innovative character of their work. Many such interventions involve standardising a client organisation’s practices in line with established industry ‘best practices’. For example, in implementations of new IT systems, the role of the management consultants is often to achieve a ‘vanilla implementation’. This involves the consultants assisting the client organisation in aligning its business processes with the ‘best practice’ business processes that have been designed into the software package being implemented, thereby avoiding the costs of customising the software so as to adapt it to the client organisation’s individual, preferred ways of doing things. Such organisational change falls far short of ground-breaking innovation, unless viewed solely from the narrow perspective of a particular client organisation. Moreover, management consultancy firms use knowledge management processes and systems to establish and standardise upon particular management consultancy methods (Hansen et al. 1999). They develop and disseminate standardised methods throughout their organisations as a way of managing their costs; the availability of step-by-step guides to standard methods in firms’ knowledge management systems facilitates deployment on their projects of less experienced and less costly consultants than would otherwise be necessary. Yet this practice limits the scope for innovative management consultancy interventions that are tailored to individual clients’ particular circumstances.

An innovatory management consultant will aim for a mean between, on the one hand, untried innovation that may not work, and bold innovation that may generate so much resistance as to be unimplementable and, on the other hand, overreliance on cautious, standard solutions and management consulting methods. The indications in the literature that management consultants sometimes seek to create the impression in their clients’ minds of attractive innovativeness, while actually providing them with highly standardised outputs and outcomes, suggest that the principal danger is that consultancy interventions will be over-cautious.

Friendliness: Engaging Actively with their Clients and their Interests

Forming strong client relationships is a central element of management consultancy firms’ business strategies (Maister 1993). It is widely recognised that ‘personal chemistry’ and liking between clients and their management consultants is a crucial factor; clients will not work with consultants whom they personally do not like (Nikolova et al. 2015). Management consultants seek to become the friends of senior managers within client organisations who are in a position to give them business. For some management consultants, this extends to aligning their recommendations with the known views of such senior managers, making them look good in front of their colleagues, and helping them to advance their personal agenda, or indeed their careers, within their organisations (Chelliah and Davis 2010; Nikolova et al. 2015; Sturdy 1997; Werr and Styhre 2003). It may involve consultants participating in coalitions with particular groups of managers in a client organisation in pursuit of their political objectives (Alvesson et al. 2009). Management consultants’ liminal status, whereby they are neither complete insiders nor complete outsiders of the client organisation, creates opportunities for them to meet particular client managers and build relationships with them outside the confines of day-to-day business relationships, for example in business dinners (Czarniawska and Mazza 2003; Sturdy et al. 2006).

These observations suggest that management consultants often lack independent-mindedness in their dealings with their clients in the interests of attracting and retaining business. While partiality - as the error of excess in respect of the moral virtue of friendliness (philia) - might be deplored, aloofness - as the error of deficiency - equally involves dangers. Pettigrew (2012) points out that organisational change is a political process, involving the delegitimisation of old ideas and the legitimisation of new ones. In these circumstances a management consultant who wishes to be effective cannot remain entirely aloof from the political action and conflict that is associated with change. In reflecting on his own management consultancy practice, Schein (1997, p. 213) says that he may ‘help a manager to win a political battle over another manager’, but only in circumstances in which it would be for the benefit of his ultimate clients. Schein here seems to be aiming for the mean in respect of friendliness (philia), neither standing aloof from the fray nor showing partisanship in his own interests.

Truthfulness: Explaining Clearly to their Clients the Extent and Limitations of their Ability to Help them

Writers on management consulting often argue that impression management lies at the heart of management consulting (Alvesson et al. 2009; Clark and Salaman 1998; Fincham 1999; Glückler and Ambrüster 2003; Werr and Styhre 2003). The intangible nature of management consulting, and the consequently subjective nature of clients’ appraisal of management consultants when considering whether to appoint them, and the subjective nature also of clients’ evaluations of what their consultants have achieved for them, explain the importance of impression management (Wright and Kitay 2002). Clients’ reliance on their subjective impressions of management consultants’ capabilities and achievements creates conditions in which consultants may behave opportunistically, by promoting an exaggerated sense of their value to their clients. Clark and Salaman (1998) suggest that management consultants may behave manipulatively, presenting a front-stage image of excellent performance that masks a less than excellent back-stage reality. Situations in which management consultants may represent a standardised, ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to their clients as being innovative and tailored to the clients’ unique circumstances provide an example of how this might occur (Appelbaum and Steed 2005; Wright et al. 2012). This is not to say, however, that the impressions that management consultants create are necessarily false or exaggerated, or indeed that impression management is an illegitimate activity (Lalonde and Gilbert 2016; Provis 2010). Management consultants may have to be active in using their impression management skills in order to create an accurate impression of themselves and their work in the minds of their clients and other stakeholders, for example when seeking to persuade a resistant audience of the necessity to adopt a particular course of action in its own interests.

Impression management has become a core management consultancy skill. In these circumstances it is as much in clients’ interests that management consultants should not understate their capabilities and the value of their ideas as it is that they should not exaggerate them. The most capable consultants may be rejected in favour of less capable consultants as a result of poor presentation to clients that understates their capabilities, while clients may reject the best ideas in response to a poor presentation that understates their value. Consultants who lack the necessary skills to undertake a particular project may persuade clients to appoint them with a slick presentation that exaggerates their capabilities, while clients may accept impracticable ideas in response to persuasive presentation that exaggerates their value. Deficiency in respect of truthfulness denies the best consultants the work that they should be awarded, while excess may damage both the consultants’ and the clients’ reputations.

Where Does the Boundary Lie between the Ethical Responsibilities of the Management Consultant and those of the Client and Other Stakeholders?

The actions of management consultants have considerable influence, not only on the ways in which particular client organisations manage themselves and perform, but also on society at large through their influence, for example, on the organisation of government institutions and on the vocabulary of management decision-making (O’Mahoney and Markham 2013). While individual management consultants clearly have a responsibility for the outcomes to which that influence leads, other stakeholders also have responsibilities. Either the government or, collectively, the management consultancy industry itself, might regulate the ways in which management consultants operate so as to protect clients and society at large from unethical practice. Individual clients might adopt rigorous selection processes so as to appoint the best management consultants for the work that they need done; they might include specifications in their contracts with their management consultants that are designed to ensure that consultancy projects meet their organisational needs; and they might monitor their consultants’ performance against those specifications so as to hold them to account for fulfilling their contractual obligations in full. The senior management teams of management consultancy firms also might put in place processes and systems to ensure ethical behaviour on the part of the management consultants whom they employ, both as a matter of good corporate citizenship and in order to maintain and develop their reputations with their clients.

Management consulting, like the established professions, is a knowledge-based industry (Furusten 2013). By contrast with the established professions, however, the knowledge upon which it relies is uncertain, emergent, often socially constructed, the property of the individual management consultancy firm that deploys it, and therefore not assessable against any generally accepted body of management consultancy knowledge (Nikolova et al. 2009). It has been suggested that management consulting is a modern form of profession, in which the only test of membership of that profession is market acceptance (Furusten 2013). Attempts to introduce a universal system of regulation of management consulting, in the manner that has been adopted by the established professions, have always been resisted by the management consultancy industry and have been unsuccessful (Greiner and Ennsfellner 2010; Harvey et al. 2017; Kirkpatrick et al. 2012). This reflects the fundamental barriers to regulation that arise from the nature of management consultancy knowledge (Alvesson and Johansson 2002). How could a regulator determine whether or not management consultants had done their work to an acceptable, professional standard when there can be no general agreement as to the body of knowledge that they should be applying to their work?

Clients must to some extent observe the principle, caveat emptor. The projects that consultants undertake for their clients are governed by commercial contracts. Clients are free to choose which management consultants to appoint to help them, and indeed whether or not to use their services at all. They can specify clearly in the contracts with their consultants what they expect their consultancy projects to produce for them and to achieve, and can monitor their consultants’ compliance with those contracts. Yet there is a sharp distinction between project management success and project success; the consultants may complete to the letter every project task that the contract requires, yet the desired project outcomes may not be achieved (De Wit 1988). Moreover, whether or not the required outcomes that have been specified in a contract have actually been achieved typically can be assessed only on the basis of the clients’ subjective impressions (Wright and Kitay 2002). Without doubt there are steps that clients can take to improve their confidence in the value for money that they obtain from their consultants. Some client organisations have been increasing the involvement of procurement specialists in selecting the management consultants who work for them, as a means of introducing more objective, criterion-based methods of selection (Werr and Pemer 2007). Clients might invest in tightening the processes for managing their contracts with management consultants. Clients might demand transparency from their consultants as to the evidence base, derived from their knowledge management systems, upon which they base their work. Yet the subjective impressions that senior managers in client organisations form of their consultants is a material factor in how effectively they are likely to work with them (Chelliah and Davis 2010). There are also limits to the investment that it would be worthwhile for clients to make in contract management, and in investigating the evidence base that supports their consultants’ work.

In the absence of a generally accepted, formal system of regulation, and of objective means whereby clients can reliably appraise the contribution of their consultants, clients and other stakeholders have to rely on the character of management consultants themselves. Aristotle (1934) says that human beings have a natural capacity for both the intellectual and the moral virtues. Whereas the intellectual virtues can be developed through instruction and experience, however, the moral virtues are developed by habit. In the Greek city-state, it is the responsibility of law-givers to enact laws that will habituate people to moral virtue. Moral virtue is not simply a matter for each individual; a human being ‘is by nature a social animal’ (Aristotle 1934, p. 29), and the leaders of society have a responsibility for habituating those whom they lead to moral virtue. The leaders of management consulting firms similarly have a responsibility for habituating their consultants to ethical conduct. O’Mahoney (2011) argues that, so far from doing so, leaders of management consulting firms increasingly treat responsibility for ethical conduct as a matter for individual consultants, while at the same time operating performance management systems that privilege commercial requirements above ethical ones. Codes of ethical practice are widespread in the consulting industry, but such codes are widely recognised as largely ineffectual (Allen and Davis 1993; O’Mahoney 2011). While management consulting firms set their consultants clear and specific targets for sales and utilisation (that is, the proportion of their time that consultants spend on work for which clients can be billed), the ethical codes that they prescribe tend to be vague and general. It is natural in these circumstances for management consultants to pay closer attention to meeting the specific performance targets upon which their careers depend than to observing vague and general strictures as to ethical practice. O’Mahoney (2011) suggests that management consulting firms benefit financially from these arrangements, which place accountability for any ethical misdemeanours upon the individual consultants involved rather than the firm as a whole. If management consultants are to be habituated to ethical practice in their work, the leaders of management consulting firms have to institute management practices and systems, such as systems of recognition and reward, that can realistically contribute to an organisational culture that embodies strong ethical values. The literature suggests that these leaders have much to do if management consultants are to be fully committed to high standards of ethical practice, and if ethical concerns are not to be crowded out by pressures to meet financial performance targets.


The function of management consultants is different in numerous ways from those of members of the established professions. These differences stem in particular from the nature of management consultancy knowledge. As a consequence of the unique characteristics of management consultancy knowledge, management consulting has no generally accepted system of regulation; necessarily involves itself in its clients’ organisational politics; embodies management of clients’ impressions of its consultants as a core skill; and is implemented through a vast array of different kinds of consultancy roles and consultant-client relationships. These distinctions of function lead to ethical differences between management consultancy practice and the practice of the established professions.

Because of the distinctive characteristics of management consulting, and the difficulties involved in attempts to make objective assessments of the quality of management consultancy work, the character of individual management consultants is especially important in ensuring that they are worthy of the trust of their clients and other stakeholders. Because of the importance of the management consultant’s character, Aristotelian virtue ethics offer a promising approach to considering ethical practice in management consulting. A particular strength of Aristotle’s (1934) approach is that adopting ethical values is considered to be among the many good things that constitute a happy life, and not in conflict with the enjoyment of good things that people might reasonably desire. This stands in contrast with other approaches to ethics, including ethical codes in management consulting, which tend to emphasise prohibitions of various kinds (Solomon 1992). These include, for example, prohibitions against conflicts of interest, taking on work for which you do not have appropriate expertise and capacity, and poaching clients’ staff; there is nothing here to which exception could reasonably be taken, but the whole tenor is about what consultants should not do. Aristotle (1934) does not simply require you not to take more than your due, he positively enjoins you to take what is your due. Aristotle’s (1934, p. 337) intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis) enables people to ‘deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for [themselves] … what is advantageous as a means to the good life in general’. This approach to ethics, therefore, is a call to human flourishing, not to puritanical abstention from the good things of life, and as such is likely to have more traction than the lists of prohibitions embodied in typical ethical codes.

Aristotle (1934) anchors his approach to ethics to examination of the function that the individual performs. While his project of determining the function of a human being, and thus what the virtues of a human being might be, remains problematic, it is a simpler matter to determine what the function of a management consultant might be, and therefore what constitutes ethical practice in management consulting. The relationships between management consultants and their clients are often compared with the doctor-patient relationship. Analysis of the limitations of this comparison is instructive in identifying what is distinctive about the function of management consultants from the perspective of ethical practice. Management consultants’ clients in any consultancy engagement are likely to be numerous and divergent in their expectations; their clients’ reasons for appointing them may arise from some tangible business threat or opportunity, but equally may stem from their attraction to, or anxiety about missing out on, new, intangible business ideas or trends; and management consultants will deploy their firms’ own proprietary, but unverifiable, knowledge in their client interventions.

Despite these limitations of the comparison, there are some points of similarity with the circumstances and obligations of doctors from an ethical perspective as well as differences. Management consultants must earn the trust of their clients; they must approach their consultancy projects with a clear intent to do good for their clients; they must not give priority to their own interests over those of their clients in carrying out their consultancy projects; and they should be willing to take reasonable risks for the good of their clients by intervening boldly where necessary when that might expose them to moderate reputational and legal risks. The differences are, however, substantial. Although superior knowledge and expertise may sometimes place management consultants in a position of power relative to their clients, this is by no means always the case; clients have wide, realistic choices as to whether to employ consultants at all and, if so, which ones; management consultants may engage with large numbers of clients with divergent views and interests in any project, giving rise to complexity in determining what outcome will be for the overall good of the clients; while management consultants may be expected to empathise to some extent with their clients in their concerns, the number and diversity of their clients, and the typically less direct effect of their concerns on their personal well-being, weakens this expectation in relation to any particular client; it is not only proper but often necessary for management consultants to exert influence on clients by participating in their organisational politics; management consultants enter into commercial contracts with their clients, and they have no duty to go beyond their contractual obligations in the interests of their clients, in the way that doctors might be expected to do; and management consultants necessarily rely on unscientific knowledge, so it is reasonable for them to intervene in clients’ organisations despite uncertainties as to the outcome.

In the light of these comparisons with ethical practice in medicine, seven virtues that management consultants should have are proposed. While similar in form to some of those that are appropriate to medical practitioners, the differences in circumstance between management consultant-client and doctor-patient relationships significantly affect the character of the ethical responsibilities that are associated with them. These virtues are: first, exercising prudence (phronesis) in their work for their clients, based on the training and experience necessary to complete the work effectively; second, fulfilling in full the promises embodied in their contracts with their clients; third, acting in the overall interests of their clients; fourth, never giving priority to their own financial or other interests over those of their clients; fifth, taking considered risks in their consultancy interventions in the interests of their clients; sixth, engaging actively with their clients and their interests; and seventh explaining clearly to their clients the extent and limitations of their ability to help them. Aristotle (1934) argues that every moral virtue forms part of a triad, encompassing also opposed vices of deficiency and excess. While this doctrine of the mean has often been the subject of scholarly criticism, it is argued in this paper that the idea has practical value, providing that there is no insistence on a quantitative or very precise interpretation of it. For the management consultant who is striving to shoot for ethical practice, a notion of what is deficient or excessive can be helpful as a practical guide. For this reason, this paper locates the six moral virtues that it proposes within Aristotelian triads.

There is ample evidence of poor ethical practice in management consulting, and an approach that emphasises reliance on nurturing the moral character of management consultants may seem unsatisfactory. The nature of management consultancy knowledge, and the dependency of management consulting on relationships and trust between particular managers and their consultants, places severe limitations on the scope for either effective regulation by a professional management consultancy body or for reliable contract management by clients. For Aristotle, ethical choices flow from the interplay between the moral virtues and the intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis). In his view, people develop moral virtues through habituation and not through instruction, and habituation comes about through the actions of the leaders of society. The leaders of management consulting firms have much to do if their consultants are to commit themselves to high standards of ethical practice. There is a need for a new, more ethically mature kind of management consultancy firm. It is a target worth shooting for.