We started with a very audacious goal. Rakesh Khurana, Nitin Nohria, and I wanted to invent a new stage of higher education. And we wanted it to be a platform for deploying a leadership force of experienced leaders who could address some of the world’s most challenging problems.
We were a little daunted by what we set out to do, especially at Harvard, a university that has nearly 400 years of tradition behind it and silos (called “tubs”) that were often chasms hard to cross. We wrote a paper about the idea, complete with a hundred scholarly citations (we knew we had to speak the language of the institution). Encouraged by enthusiasm from distinguished colleagues throughout Harvard University, including early board members David Gergen, Charles Ogletree, and Donald Berwick, we plunged into preparations for a program for the first-ever set of leaders transitioning from their income-earning years to their next years of service. The only problem was that we had no program, no participants, no staff, no processes (like how to select participants), and no way to explain exactly what this was. No one had ever seen anything like this, and certainly no one was planning his or her life around joining it. If that weren’t enough, we knew we had to do things differently at the University to accommodate people who were at the top of their careers, not just starting out or in mid-career hoping to advance.
Faculty board members have been enticed to guide the program and teach in it, and interested faculty members have welcomed Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows ever since to nearly every Harvard University School and numerous disciplines relevant to world-changing projects. Founded in 2008, the first cohort of Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows was selected for calendar year 2009 (calendar year affiliations are one of the ALI differences), and several years later, word-of-mouth augments announcements to attract a growing pool of outstanding candidates to a learning community that lasts beyond the fellowship year. The educational program is robust, with a strong rationale for integrated elements, a core course with a rigorous curriculum, and new cases and materials brought by a growing set of involved faculty members and their research. “Advanced Leadership” is on its way to being defined and pinpointed as its own discipline.
In our teaching, we dare the Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows to be audacious themselves — to think “outside the building,” as we often say, because a mere box isn’t big enough, and innovation doesn’t come from establishments that protect their way of doing things. We show them that it doesn’t take just a village to raise a child or make change; it takes a “cross-sector, multi-stakeholder coalition.” That phrase doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it accurately reflects our own journey in envisioning and building Advanced Leadership at Harvard University. It has been a team effort involving many stakeholders and supporters. I’m personally grateful to all of them, within Harvard and outside. Initial support from the President and Provost provided more than early seed money; it also gave us a University-wide home, opening up all of Harvard across Schools to engage faculty and educate Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows. We are proud to be part of building One Harvard.
A new stage of higher education has the potential to refresh and reinvent the nature of universities and their engagement with society, and to multiply the leadership force adept at creating significant change.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School
Co-founder of Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative and the
Founding Chair & Director, 2005-2018