Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Welcome to the dawning era of social innovation, in which more people aspire to tackle old problems in new ways with new tools.
Lacking confidence in established organizations and governments to do the trick, innovators think that it’s time to reinvent institutions to make progress on social issues such as health, education, jobs, human rights, and the environment — and do it fast.
Increasingly, leaders want not just to run an organization effectively, but to change the surrounding system as well. Not just improve hospital performance, but improve overall health. Not just fix troubled schools, but change patterns in communities that lead children to under-perform. Not just fix a problem, like a broken financial system, but change the culture.
Such challenging goals require leaders to operate in areas where the pathways aren’t paved, and the moves aren’t already choreographed. This calls for not just great leadership, but advanced leadership.
The difference is illustrated by a classic joke about old-time movie dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred Astaire was certainly a great leader. He had a goal. He could see where he was going. He was clearly in charge. He set direction. He led Ginger Rogers around the dance floor flawlessly. But Ginger Rogers was an advanced leader. She had to do everything Fred did, while backwards and in high heels.
That’s a useful image for the challenges of societal change. If we could ask U.S. President Barack Obama or U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron whether they identify more with Fred or Ginger, I’ll bet that Ginger would win.
Advanced leaders work in complex systems where authority is diffuse or divided. Many people are in charge of parts, but no one is responsible for the whole. Goals are unclear or conflicting. There are multiple stakeholders with divergent interests. Outcomes are notoriously hard to measure. Barriers to change appear everywhere. In short, it’s like dancing when you can’t see forward and your shoes are uncomfortable.
Still, advanced leaders dance to their own tune. They find opportunities for change in the cracks in the system, in the white space where nothing is written. Rather than try to change the establishment all at once, they fill gaps, create new alliances, and forge new pathways. For example:
The nation needs more teachers? Rather than wait for teachers’ colleges to change, find a new source of teachers. Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America to entice elite college graduates to commit two years to teaching in disadvantaged schools. Former Hollywood studio head Sherry Lansing helped then-Governor Schwarzenegger of California start the EnCorps Teachers Program, building on IBM’s Transition to Teaching, to help engineers and scientists become math teachers later in their careers.
Too many people are suffering or dying from preventable medical errors? Donald Berwick dedicated the 200-person institute he founded for healthcare improvement to a national “100,000 lives campaign,” later a “5 million lives campaign,” to enlist over 4000 hospitals in commitments to changes that would improve patient safety and save lives.
Streets are unsafe, the neighborhood has deteriorated, and children don’t stay in school? Geoffrey Canada rebranded a section of New York City as the Harlem Children’s Zone, and created a set of cradle-to-college organizations to transform potential dropouts into high achieving graduates, improving street life at the same time. Gilberto Dimenstein conceived of the whole neighborhood as a school in urban Sao Paulo, Brazil, creating art and other enrichment programs that revitalized that area and transformed the school as well; the Brazilian government wants to build on this model everywhere.
Advanced leaders break mental boundaries and challenge established patterns. They think not just outside the box but outside the building. They know that cities are not City Hall, health takes more than hospitals, and education is more than schools.
Advanced leaders use the tools of the future. They don’t want society’s leftovers, or what I call spare change; they want the best and latest ideas and technology to make real change. The surface has barely been scratched for the use of technology to improve society. Consider the potential for data analytics to spot disease outbreaks, mobile phones to monitor health, or interactive websites to bring personalized learning to disadvantaged areas.
The Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard is dedicated to finding, educating, and supporting advanced leaders in every generation, but particularly in a new source of social innovators: accomplished leaders in transition from their income-earning years to their next years of service.
A good place to start is by convening a conversation. If a few creative people can find breakthroughs by thinking about Innovations in Health Care, Education & Technology, or Revitalizing Cities, then imagine the possibilities when large numbers of people put on their virtual high heels and start dancing.
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Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership.
Click here to learn more about the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard.