Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time

September 30, 2020

By Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter

At a time when our world desperately needs innovative solutions to big, pressing, intractable problems, Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School, Co-founder of Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) and the ALI Founding Chair & Director, 2005-2018, recently published a new book focused on advanced leadership, social change, and innovation: Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time. In her book, Kanter counsels that the truly daunting challenges of our time - i.e. now, climate change, COVID-19, systemic racism, economic inequality, to name a few - require a new paradigm of thinking to upend the status quo that, to date, has failed us all. “To think outside the building” is Kanter’s call to action for bold advanced leaders with the mission to tackle the world’s biggest problems when we need social, economic, and environmental solutions more than ever.

As an excerpt from Think Outside the Building’s conclusion suggests, there is hope for the future supported by the power of advanced leaders to change the world:

“In perilous times, when bad news travels fast and swamps the media, advanced leadership can be a source of good news. With trust low and social division high, it is encouraging to know that there are numerous leaders in a variety of fields who take it upon themselves to find smart innovations to make a difference in the world. Advanced leaders work to build trust and increase social capital by making new connections and standing for positive action.

Some analysts think that democracy itself is on life support. Many nations suffer from this condition; the American version is sometimes said to be caused by a new Gilded Age of especially high and intractable inequality. Clearly, systems are challenged. But I think that advanced leaders form a division of a new army of democracy. They vote for change with their feet and work for it with their time and effort. They do not simply argue about problems; they deploy their capabilities, connections, and whatever cash they can muster to demonstrate change in action and seed new social institutions to tackle big problems. They are builders rather than destroyers – more like the Army Corps of Engineers than weaponized soldiers.

When big government, big business, and even big philanthropy are attacked for their domination of the agenda and pilloried for stale thinking and questionable results, advanced leaders take another tack. Rather than get stuck in expectations that little can change (so you’d better live with it!), advanced leaders venture outside existing structures to find new approaches that fill gaps, connect otherwise-unconnected activities, and show what’s possible. They acknowledge the magnitude of big, intractable problems but want to take action rather than merely whine. Their optimistic utopian dreams of a better world provide an alternative to apocalypse now and forever. The fresh ideas they find on the streets outside the building can change old institutions and give some of them a new lease on life.”

In these troubled times, Kanter reminds us that positive change is possible, and that it is our work, individually and collectively, to step up, lead, and change the world for the better:

“Advanced leaders tap big dreams and craft compelling narratives; they build coalitions and persevere through setbacks; and they lay the foundation for growth and impact. Rather than wait for elections or orders from on high, they step up to lead the hard work of change on the ground. With creativity and entrepreneurial adroitness, they tackle the complex, messy, seemingly intractable problems that plague us.”

“As advanced leaders become more numerous, they can start to shift the culture. Mission-driven men and women from diverse backgrounds and interests can unite in their conviction that positive change is possible.”

“Armed with advanced leadership skills and fortified by the courage to move beyond the castles of our time, this growing leadership force brings hope. They - and we alongside them - can blaze new trails and light new paths fueled by the abundant and renewable power of a positive purpose.”


About the Author:


Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years, through teaching, 18 books and other writing, and direct consultation to major corporations and governments. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been repeatedly named to lists of the "50 most powerful women in the world" (Times of London), and the “50 most influential business thinkers in the world” (Accenture and Thinkers 50 research).


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