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December 16, 2020

Thinking ‘Outside the Building:’ Leadership Skills to Tackle 21st Century Problems

Keynote Session: Advanced Leadership Skills for Workforce Innovation with Rosabeth Moss Kanter

As the nature of work changes, so too do the skills required for successful leadership. Business leadership expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter joined the College Promise Careers Institute for an in-depth discussion on teaching and training the future leaders we need to tackle the world’s toughest issues. Professor Kanter co-founded the Harvard University-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, a brand-new model of higher education designed to prepare leaders to apply their skills toward solving global challenges.

Kanter identifies the ability to "think outside the building" as necessary to overcome establishment paralysis and produce the innovation needed to create a better world. From empathy to interdisciplinary leadership and communication to scalable modeling, Kanter identifies the leadership skills needed to break through the blockages that hold back social and economic progress. Moderated by Maryann Rainey of Ascendium Education Group, Kanter discusses the skills needed to solve global challenges from systemic racism to global warming, and how education institutions must change to help shape them.

Imaginative Innovation

At the Harvard University-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, students are asked to “Dream Bigger Than You Are.” Be willing to take on a problem well beyond the resources you actually control, recommends Kanter. That’s what entrepreneurs do, she says, and that’s what the leaders of tomorrow must do to tackle big issues like climate change, which no single government agency, nonprofit, or company can tackle alone.

If you dream big, you can attract others to the cause, explains Kanter. Advanced leaders give their teams permission to dream, help individuals discover how to find and articulate their voice, and don’t shy away from problems outside their direct line of reporting or even outside their organization as a whole.

Interdisciplinary Leadership

“It Takes a Village Cross-Sector Multi-Stakeholder Coalition,” says Kanter. Big problems can’t be solved within just one discipline. For example, in the fight against COVID-19, visionary leaders in the fields of healthcare, logistics, government, community outreach, and more must work together. Relationships skills, from listening to communication and empathy to understanding influence, are all essential for leaders who must build and manage diverse coalitions.

Successful leaders must think beyond a single sector, have the skills and vision needed to create new alliances and partnerships, and look at innovative ways to create scalable solutions, which start small and grow. For example, IBM has been a leader in workforce development through public/private partnerships with the company’s six-year high school and community college degree program that started in New York. Business leaders alone can not solve these complex issues like preparing the 21st century workforce for success, so they must build partnerships that are based on shared understanding of each stakeholder’s goals.


“Everything Can Seem Like a Failure in the Middle,” cautions Kanter. Difficult problems take complex solutions, and they can’t be solved overnight. That’s why modeling scalable programs is essential. Innovative leaders are tested in the middle. That’s where you hit the roadblocks, unexpected obstacles, and critics, says Kanter. That’s also where the hard work is accomplished. Kanter identifies flexibility, persistence and perseverance as key leadership skills to help leaders get through.  

Participative Management

Finally, successful leaders are empathetic. They respect diverse opinions, listen to and understand various points of view, and build coalitions based on collaborative arrangements that help all partners achieve their goals. Empathetic leaders understand and deliver participative management by listening to and including employees in their decision making. Loyalty comes when teams know that you care.

Project-based learning helps build strong, empathetic leaders. Putting people in diverse teams strengthens communication, problem solving, and collaboration skills, and giving people the opportunity to see problems first-hand and brainstorm solutions within a diverse and engaged group helps break down boundaries, create unity, and build strong leaders.

‘Thinking Outside the Building’ and College Promise

In “Thinking Outside the Building” Kanter reminds us that going beyond the current design of education institutions to create innovative new models and ways of thinking is essential to shaping the leaders of tomorrow. Just like health does not only happen in a hospital, education does not only happen in the classroom. The idea of the workplace and the classroom being widely separated is a thing of the past and innovative new educational structures are breaking down barriers and the assumption that traditional education and career and leadership skills don’t mix.

That’s why College Promise is building a broad coalition of support to encourage funding the first two or more years of postsecondary education for hard-working students, and ensuring those students have access to the quality educational opportunities and support needed to succeed. If we genuinely want to expand access to and success through and beyond postsecondary education and careers throughout the U.S. and help produce the leaders of the future, a College Promise made must be kept. To help students become innovative leaders, we need to tackle the complex problems of the future, and a widespread investment in postsecondary education is imperative.

This blog post is part of a series of recordings from the College Promise Careers Institute. In November 2020, College Promise held the virtual 3-day summit convening hundreds of our nation's leading practitioners, educators, employers, and thought leaders for sessions tackling the most complex challenges American workers face -- from the rise of artificial intelligence to the role free college plays in maintaining a competitive edge.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle professor of business at Harvard Business School. She is also director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. She co-founded the Harvard University-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, guiding its planning from 2005 to its launch in 2008 and serving as Founding Chair and Director from 2005-2018 as it became a growing international model for a new stage of higher education preparing successful top leaders to apply their skills to national and global challenges. Author or co-author of 20 books, her latest book, published in January 2020, is Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time. Professor Kanter has been repeatedly named to lists such as the “50 most powerful women in the world” (Times of London), and the received the “Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2019.

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