Think Outside The Building

Why we are loving Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s latest book 

An article by Cain Ullah and Mara Zalite

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter is one of the world's leading business thinkers. Her seminal work on strategy, innovation, and leadership for change has influenced generations. Her latest book ‘Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time’ offers a bold theory based on her 10-years experience running the Harvard advanced Leadership Initiative. This theory provides a pathway for courageous leaders to help solve the world's most complex social and environmental grand challenges. For us, it is a perfect ‘how to boil the ocean’ playbook. 

What is Advanced Leadership? 

The word “advanced” in advanced leadership refers to the additional skills necessary to address messy, complex systemic problems. According to Professor Kanter, advanced leadership refers less to a life stage and more to a mode of action, and persuasion not the power of position. It involves hustle, not hierarchy and one doesn’t have to be of an advanced age to practice advanced leadership. It is a step beyond the kind of leadership that is exercised primarily working in a single organization or field single-mindedly focused on furthering its own goals. It is about working collaboratively across organisations and sectors with other advanced leaders to impact society.

The book is full of wonderful examples of people practising advanced leadership. For example, Torsten Thiele who transitioned from the finance industry and set up The Global Ocean Trust to improve global ocean governance through innovative finance. There are also many more examples that are not in the book that have personally inspired us. Massimo Bottura, one of the world’s best chefs has started a global movement Food for Soul to feed the hungry. Lindsay Boswell, the CEO of FareShare is on a mission to end food poverty in the UK and has a track record of 30 years doing good. Co-founders of the Employers’ Social Mobility Alliance Barry Matthews and Barry Murphy using their connections, capabilities and courage to take on Social Mobility challenge by providing work experience opportunities to young people while still doing their day jobs. There are endless examples of inspiring stories of advanced leaders who have stepped outside of the confines of their usual boundaries to have an impact on the world.

Why Grand Challenges are so hard? 

Challenges such as social mobility, ending hunger or improving the health of oceans don’t have a single owner, but if addressed have many benefiting parties and stakeholders. For example, improving the social mobility grand challenges might unlock economic value and create a more just society. People also have a tendency to reify - take a broad idea and associate with concrete form. However, as Professor Kanter points out - hospital is not health, school is not education, news is not newspaper. 

The book offers five main reasons why the grand challenges are hard hard to solve: 

  • They have big scope and significance and have many layers; 
  • There is a lot of ambiguity, unspecific goals and pathways; 
  • There is a limited mandate or lack of authority; 
  • There are multiple conflicting stakeholders; 
  • There is a huge mismatch between resources and needs. 

3+1 critical ingredients of Advanced Leadership: Capabilities, Connection, Cash & Courage

Professor Kanter in her years of research and practical experience has observed that there are three critical attributes that enable advanced leaders wanting to take on grand challenges: Capabilities, Connection and Cash. However, there is a fourth thing that is often short in supply: Courage. Readiness to change involves the willingness to take risks and courage in leadership is often in short supply. It is harder to be positive, but positivity stems from action. 

7 traps that limit Advanced Leadership

The most successful people are also the ones that are often the most constrained by their positions and handicapped by their successes. Professor Kanter talks about a sociological term of  'trained incapacity'  that’s attributed to an American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Trained incapacity refers to a blind spot that comes with a focused experience. Getting better and better at something stifles the ability to do other things or makes it challenging to change. It’s so deeply ingrained in one’s personality, it takes huge effort and courage to take on the impossible task of changing one’s mind. 

Professor Kanter has observed seven behavioural traps that usually stems from successes and hinders great leaders becoming an advanced leader:

  1. Already know it all. The more senior one becomes, the more they start to believe they possess all the necessary skills and knowledge. Rather than applying beginners or an always learning mindset to problems or admitting to not knowing, they start to impart their experiences onto others. 
  2. Bubble wrap - insulation from disagreement. People prefer to engage with those who agree rather than disagree with them as it takes more mental effort. This is the cognitive diversity challenge Matthew Syed touched on in our first Mission Beyond event.  
  3. Assumed rights and privileges. People who have reached great positions of leadership assume they have special rights to exercise power in their own way, ignoring people who are different either cognitively or physically. Corporate law firms and the financial world, Professor Kanter notes, are particularly famous for aggressive cultures and take no prisoners approach. 
  4. Army of helpers. To achieve great success people rely on others to support them. While it is a positive dependency, it’s still a dependency.  
  5. Narrowing mental frames. A price for being an expert in the field comes at the cost of not being able to empathise with people outside the field. 
  6. Gratifications rhythms: impatience for outcomes. Impatience keeps people from exploration, notes Professor Kanter. While it feels like it should be attributed to the younger generations, it is also very often observed in more experienced leaders. 
  7. Identity confirmation. People identify themselves with what they do, where they are from and what clubs they belong to which give them a lot of comfort and a place in the world. The same comfort makes comfort it hard for people to transition into new roles/identities hard. 

The path to impact - turning words into action 

Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist has said ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’. The path to impact involves developing skills and sensibilities. 

Taking upon the societal, economical and environmental grand challenges such as those described in UN Sustainable Development Goals can feel impossible. Professor Kanter argues that innovation and change can’t follow a fixed script. Leaders must learn to read the mood of the times to develop relevant opportunities. This involves dreaming big, revisiting the past to tell the right story, building coalitions and activating allies, working beyond boundaries, across and outside established structures. Advanced leadership is driven from a sense of purpose, oriented towards changing the system. Positive action can also generate a sense of purpose and start changing the culture. If you grab people with exciting demonstrations, their heart and minds will follow. That is our intention with the Mission Beyond initiative. 

‘Think Outside the Building’ is a worthwhile read and offers advice on finding purpose and turning dreams into actionable ideas. We are very excited Professor Kanter will be joining us for our Mission Beyond: Opening the doors: Reducing inequalities event. If you would like to join us please register for the event here

Sign up to Badger News