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November/December 2019

Advanced Leadership Can Change the World

Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative trains leaders to seek and implement global changes.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter & Judy Perry Martinez

Editor’s Note: Judy Perry Martinez, who currently serves as president of the American Bar Association, participated in 2015 as a fellow in residence at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. Program co-founder Rosabeth Moss Kanter leads off this article by describing her vision of leadership, followed by Martinez’s personal account of her participation in the initiative.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: There’s a big leap between exercising leadership in one’s own firm, company, agency or professional practice and leading change in the wider world. In the first instance, as part of an organization, you might be responsible for a set of clients, a team or the development of associates. You have a relative degree of control over what it takes to ensure high performance, there are tools and incentives to motivate people, the tasks and standards are pretty clear, and there are numerous precedents and procedures to guide the work.

But the second kind of leadership, which I call advanced leadership, is not cut-and-dried, and classic leadership skills are not enough. To have significant impact on a profession, a major community or a societal problem—to change the world—requires persuading people you don’t control and who don’t work for you to join you in a quest that is sometimes ambiguous, complex, messy and contentious. In fact, the major challenges that people say they care about today have that character: inequities and injustice, climate change, gun violence, health and wellness, education, student debt and advancement of democracies. They can’t be addressed by any one discipline acting alone, and they require wide coalitions rather than small teams.

From the perspective of leadership, one common characteristic of large or global problems is that they include both technical and political components. The political context surrounding any problem must be understood and managed, and a variety of institutions across sectors must be mobilized before technical solutions can be applied. Along similar lines, technical knowledge of solutions alone is not enough to scale successful demonstration projects that address these complex problems. That step involves resources and skills centered on forging appropriate systemic connections to effectively distribute solutions. Please see for details.

Thus these challenges cannot be solved by one profession or institution acting alone; indeed, effective action most often occurs at the intersections of professional and institutional fields. Holistic solutions, however, can be difficult to implement because of the complex interactions—or failures to interact—among many participants who deal with just one piece of an issue. Finally, solutions to these problems require concurrent actions at several system levels and/or among many stakeholders. This means that social capital, as well as financial capital, is required to forge relationships, influence opinion leaders and gatekeepers, and ensure cultural appropriateness.

The Advanced Leadership Initiative

The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) was founded to help accomplished people make that leap from traditional leadership modes, inside their field or profession, to work on seemingly intractable social, economic, justice and environmental causes. It was put forth as a “new stage of higher education,” to tap the capabilities of experienced professionals and executives and arm them with the additional skills and sensibilities that would help them make inroads on the seemingly impossible problems plaguing the world. The first cohort of ALI Fellows, in 2009, included lawyers, physicians, military officers, financiers and corporate executives from the U.S. and other countries, all at the top of their game and ready to transition from their income-earning years to their next years of service. By mid-2019 there have been over 500 people dedicated to improving the state of the world—and a new leadership paradigm was born.

People aspiring to be advanced leaders have learned to get out of the Bubble Wrap that can surround top people (being told only what they want to hear by those who want to flatter them), listen deeply to many constituencies of people who are different from themselves and focus on the grand purpose of solving a problem through innovating, rather than following traditions. Instead of being stuck in the mindset of their field, they now can “think outside the building,” stepping into a wider arena where they must be creative, challenge stereotypes and build coalitions of diverse stakeholders to get anything done.

Advanced Leadership in Action

For example, a Washington lawyer couple who had been very successful in a firm and in a high government post decided to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis, helping speed up the process of resettlement in friendly countries. This wasn’t a problem they could find in casebooks or even tackle using only the tools of law. Listening to people who had visited refugee camps in the Middle East and then visiting the camps themselves, they discovered that media depictions of unskilled heads of families needing humanitarian aid were often wrong. They realized that many refugees had marketable skills that would make them economically productive and help fill talent gaps in receiving countries such as Canada and Australia. Starting with nothing but an idea and the ability to make relationships and forge coalitions, they created a service to make the match between companies with talent needs and refugees with skills. And as “social entrepreneurs” with a viable venture, they were now in a position to influence government policies.

To “think outside the building” involves stepping beyond the boundaries of a field to listen and learn about what the world needs, not what the aspiring advanced leader has to offer. It’s a kind of thinking that can make law firms more innovative. In one major firm a young associate persuaded the managing partner to take seats at a new venture incubator so that lawyers could rotate in and out and soak up the entrepreneurial atmosphere. This was one factor in enabling the firm to innovate in creating a range of new digital products for providing legal services. Advanced leadership, as exemplified by these two examples, is not a life stage; it is a sensibility about being open to new ideas that challenge existing models and finding sometimes-surprising novel solutions.

Advanced Leadership Skill Sets

Going from idea to action initiative requires skills in persuasion. Many successful professionals know how to use position power or authority to issue commands (especially within their own firms) rather than persuade people to get on board with an idea by finding a compelling narrative that inspires commitment. Advanced leaders become skilled at telling a story about a higher purpose, a grand goal and a moving dream of change. Lawyers can use those skills in courtrooms, but they become even more important in tackling big problems outside of the walls of conventional institutions. A dream—a sense of purpose—keeps the leader and other people motivated even when the going is tough. Advanced leaders learn that it takes as much time and energy to dream small as to dream big, so you might as well dream big.

Persuasion is a key in coalition building. There’s an African proverb that it takes a village ... to raise a child or do anything worthwhile. Advanced leaders can’t act alone. They simply don’t possess all the tools, disciplinary skills, resources or connections to get a change initiative underway, let alone achieve significant impact. So it takes more than a village; it takes a cross-sector, multi-stakeholder coalition. Advanced leaders need allies who will support them, fund them, teach them and help answer the critics that inevitably arise when something new and different is attempted. Among the key advanced leadership skills are:

  • Showing up. This is a classic principle: If you’re not there, you can’t be treated seriously. It’s never the meeting itself; it’s the side conversations, the new relationships and the “feel” for the people.
  • Listening and learning. People love to be asked to tell others what they know—and they think that others who ask them questions are smarter than people who don’t ask. Then the advanced leader, who might have started out knowing little outside of her field of expertise, can become a bit of an expert herself.
  • Networking with people outside of their normal purview. New ideas and creative solutions follow the same principles as finding a job: You get more from people with whom you don’t normally interact than from those you see regularly, who might think just the way you do, reinforcing the status quo.
  • Helping before requesting. I’ve seen people become very influential by offering to take on tasks, even if they are not center stage. That builds trust—something particularly important if trying to work on problems in communities of people different from you.
  • Making “yes” easy by requesting just a little from a lot of people. No is always an easier answer than yes. Advanced leaders know that they are better off making many small asks than just a few big ones. That way they get more “investors” in their project.
  • Preselling and ironing out differences. Like major negotiations, much of the action is not at the table. It happens before people get together. Advanced leaders know that they should never call a meeting until they know where everyone stands and have had the chance to coach people or modify the project to fit the diversity of views.
  • Finding quick wins and early successes. And then sharing the credit. Recognition is a powerful tool for all leaders, advanced or otherwise.

Using these skills can be helpful for inside-the-building tasks of daily professional life. But they are essential for people who want to take on a big, bold, audacious goal.

Dreaming Big

I can’t think of a goal bigger than the planet itself, which means climate change, on land or in the sea. Many organizations are working on change but often in conventional ways that haven’t yet made enough of a dent in the problem. A lawyer from Columbus, Ohio, had specialized in environmental law, among other areas, but that didn’t prepare him to bring affordable green energy to Liberia, where he had worked in the Peace Corps many years before. Just importing the solar cells was fraught with problems, all of which required finding new allies and building coalitions, whether with a technical college to find engineers or a labor union to help with distribution.

Or take an even bigger climate change goal. A European banker concerned about the health of the oceans—a messy, complex systems-change task if there ever was one—talked himself into the middle of discussions by governments, NGOs and businesses and then managed to overcome the silos dividing them to introduce a new idea: finance vehicles that could invest in ocean-saving projects across national boundaries.

For every good leader, there’s an advanced leader waiting to be unleashed. That’s very positive. The world needs more and better leaders, and more of us can join that powerful force for change.

Judy Perry Martinez: After 21 years at a law firm as a commercial litigator and a dozen years in-house in the aerospace and defense industry, while sitting in an airport for yet another delayed flight, I happened upon an article in the Wall Street Journal about an opportunity to explore the realm of advanced leadership. Little did I know that the experience would be so enriching, invigorating and inspiring. I quietly applied, not expecting to be admitted, and when I was, although even at the top of my game in my career, I promptly advised my company leadership that I would be departing in the new year to start a new journey. My husband and I, along with our 78-pound dog, moved to Cambridge and found an apartment in a brownstone on the Charles River, three days before January’s Snowmageddon, part of the record-setting 108.6 inches of snow that hit the Boston area in 2015. What followed was a calendar year of learning, new friendships and a sense of renewal in how we could contribute in some small way to make the lives of others better.

The ALI program, then in its seventh year, brought together 43 fellows from around the world. We held a common bond—a desire to use our skills, talents, experience and passion for a greater good. We all had enjoyed successful careers in corporations, government or NGOs and, beyond that, each of us had at least 25 years of demonstrated leadership. Among us were doctors, lawyers, scientists, entrepreneurs, wealth managers, economists, environmentalists, investment bankers, CEOs, engineers, politicians, philanthropists, researchers, policymakers, musicians, artists, cattle farmers and pecan growers.

The goals of the program are expansive. As Harvard describes the program:

ALI taps the experience of a socially conscious generation of accomplished leaders and provides them with tools to address complex challenges. These challenges often have multifaceted political and technical dimensions that cannot be solved with a single approach. ALI Fellows participate in a core course, intensive deep dives on social issues (health, environment, and education), and audit courses across the university, culminating in a capstone event where they present their plan to make a lasting difference in the world. Following the program year, fellows join the ALI Coalition ... individuals from past cohorts who are dedicated to ongoing social impact.

The weekly curriculum on advanced leadership was delivered to our cohort using the Harvard Business School case study method in full cohort sessions that were guest lectured by professors from across the university, with ample time for discussion. The year in residence also enabled us to audit any of the 3,700 undergraduate courses, as well as courses in any of the eight professional schools at Harvard—Law, Business, Medicine, Public Health, Education, Divinity, Design and the Kennedy School on Public Policy.

The latter is where I dove in and seldom came back to shore. I chose courses on leaders and leadership in history, juvenile justice and evidence-based policy, personal strategic planning, mass incarceration and human rights campaigns. Others selected courses based on a desire to learn about areas where they wanted to focus and sometimes signed up for a course just for fun. As a fellow, you are expected to attend every class, write every paper, participate in small groups and take every test and the final exam—and you are graded on your efforts. The richness of the experience in classrooms filled with brilliant and inquisitive graduate students only added to the value of the year. Their acceptance of the ALI Fellows, and the opportunity to collaborate with them on class work, added another dimension of learning.

ALI faculty, as well as numerous other faculty members, made themselves available to us for advice, consultation and project assistance. Some hosted dinner parties or would meet a group of fellows for coffee.

Our ALI cohort took deep dives (two- to three-day focused workshops) on climate change, health care, criminal justice and more. As we all were in residence, every afternoon and evening you could choose from a menu of offerings around campus that included visiting heads of state, panels of working journalists, guest lecturers on topics of academic interest and innovation competitions. Several evenings a week, small groups from our cohort would gather for dinners hosted by different members of the class on a rotating basis, and on Wednesdays we met at a favorite restaurant to dine together. The weekends were filled with trips to nearby towns and villages, dance parties, bowling outings and more. Some of us took the Harvard swim test and learned (or tried to learn) how to crew, and others did major cycling and hikes in the beautiful surroundings. We all basically abandoned our cars and walked everywhere we wanted to go. We sometimes were joined by members of other cohorts whom we had met during the two major cross-cohort exchanges—conferences held annually when the ALIers from the preceding classes gather in Cambridge for several days of programming.

Probably the greatest gift that comes out of ALI is the enduring friendships. The members of my cohort came from across the globe for a common purpose—to think differently about leadership, to fuel our lifelong commitment to learning and to commit to support each other by building a community of individuals who along with their partners care about the planet, justice, humanity and the future. We accomplished the first two objectives and excelled at the third.

Members of our cohort have traveled together to India, New Orleans, Italy, Morocco and Patagonia. We have whitewater rafted down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for eight days and walked up from the bottom on the Bright Angel Trail. In each instance we were hosted by one of our classmates, and while there we studied an array of challenges faced by the local communities and their people, with help of local experts and those committed to bringing forth impactful solutions. Through it all, we have expanded our capacity to learn, grow, love and care deeply, not only for the concerns and challenges that we each brought to ALI but for the hopes and dreams of our classmates.

In addition to what Professor Kanter shared above, I add one final thought: Advanced leadership is about not only taking one’s skills and knowledge and decision making to the next level but also about awakening to the fact that within each of us is the capacity to do more than we ever dreamed possible because of the exponential surge in energy that comes from working together across disciplines toward a common goal. The ABA has that fuel in abundance and, with it, I believe we can meet and overcome many of the challenges that face our country and beyond. So take that leap to advanced leadership and be that force for change to benefit those whom we serve.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and founding chair and director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, a post she held through 2018. Her latest book, to be published in January 2020, is Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time. [email protected]

Judy Perry Martinez

Judy Perry Martinez, of Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn in New Orleans, is president of the American Bar Association. [email protected]