Campus & Community

New leadership fellowship program established

6 min read

Interdisciplinary effort asserts value of still-productive baby boomers

A core of 13 faculty members is collaborating across disciplines to create a new Harvard fellowship program they say will harness a largely untapped universe of leadership skills.

The Advanced Leadership Initiative will recruit senior leaders in business, law, the military, banking, education, and other professionals who have reached the top of their game and are ready for a life of public service.

By late next year, a pilot program of about 20 Senior Leadership Fellows will be in place. In subsequent years, planners said, the University-wide interdisciplinary program will average about 50 fellows a year.

The Office of the Provost at Harvard just approved a budget for the new initiative, a two-year pilot program contingent on progress in the first year. The ambitious concept — the first at any university — will be introduced at a series of alumni meetings this year, beginning Sept. 27 at the Harvard Business School.

Fellows will spend a semester in residence at Harvard during the winter term, auditing courses from February through May and getting down to business in six intensive, multiple-day “think tanks” led by core faculty.

The rest of a calendar year, they will attend specialized workshops, confer with senior faculty, lead study groups, and participate in summer field exercises. These immersions — at real-world problem sites in urban America, Africa, and elsewhere — will require fellows to write and present a lengthy report that outlines an action plan for solutions.

“Leadership is not just knowledge of one profession,” said longtime HBS faculty member Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of the creators of the fellowship program and Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Leadership. “It’s the ability to motivate people to take action and create change.”

In part, the fellowship program was inspired by what Kanter called “the demographic revolution” — a lengthening life span for Americans that often leaves older workers brimming with expertise and searching for meaning. A recent count of Harvard alumni turned up 70,000 in the right age group, said Kanter — many of them acknowledged experts with a knack for analysis and action. “And that’s just Harvard,” she said. “There are millions more.”

Reaching retirement age “is only the start of a whole period of life that for many people has no content,” said Kanter, the author of 16 books on leadership, changing workplaces, and innovation. “We now have a stage of life that stands there to be invented.”

A working paper on the fellowship written in 2005 sketched out five portraits of high-end, highly educated baby boomers ready to move on to public service — just the kind of candidates Harvard will seek for this new, academically rigorous program. One was a military officer who turned to youth service. Another was a retired physician who now directs a global health advocacy group.

“We’re about people making a difference in the public sphere,” said national intelligence expert Peter Zimmerman, a senior associate dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and one of the new program’s core faculty. “This seems entirely consistent with our mission.”

Joining Zimmerman in the project is news analyst and journalist David Gergen, Professor of Public Service at the Kennedy School and director of the prestigious Center for Public Leadership.

The 13 core faculty members — from Harvard’s schools of business, government, law, education, and public health — started planning for the fellowship program two years ago. They see the Advanced Leadership Initiative as a way to add knowledge, skills, and leadership to a host of emerging global problems: the threat of pandemics, inadequate systems of basic education, grinding poverty, and environmental degradation.

These challenges are so complex that they require a synergistic collaboration of experts from a variety of disciplines, and breaking traditional boundaries that separate the humanities, social sciences, and medicine.

The core faculty group is also busy writing a series of cross-faculty case studies to use in the fellowship program. One will be on lead poisoning, a problem that disproportionately affects children of the urban poor. The lengthy case study will have substantial content from experts in public health, law, and management. “It’s a good example of a problem that crosses disciplines,” said Kanter.

The same case will profile Civil Rights activist, lawyer, and judge Benjamin L. Hooks, the onetime executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (Cases being written will include profiles of exemplary advanced leaders who go on to do public service.)

At age 77, Hooks signed on as chair of the board at the Children’s Health Forum, a nonprofit aimed at preventing childhood disease. “There’s diverse talent beyond chosen careers,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who will help introduce the new fellowship program on Sept. 27. “Hooks is a great example,” Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and vice dean of clinical programs at Harvard Law School.

The new program is intended to be a model for transforming universities more fully into efficient engines for doing good. “We see ourselves contributing to a gap in leadership by bringing in people with skills, connections, and a desire for meaning,” said Kanter. “Higher education itself has a goal to serve society.”

The fellowship program will also have direct benefits for Harvard: enhanced alumni relations, valuable connections for graduate students, and new course material based on the interdisciplinary case studies. The fellows will also, in effect, be adjunct faculty — experts who bring their training and years of experience into classrooms and seminars. And they’ll come back every year to take part in public symposia. The first is envisioned for the fall of 2009.

“This is a work-in-progress,” said Kanter. “We’re going to grow this over time.” The scope and implementation may change slightly, she said, and the program will start small.

But its Harvard progenitors are already clear. The program combines features of four well-known programs: the Nieman Fellowships, which encourage auditing courses; the Harvard Society of Fellows, with its emphasis on free intellectual pursuit and independent study; the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, where distinguished experts in residence for a semester enliven study groups; and the University’s many executive education programs, in which peers pore over case studies to get immersed in core concepts.

The fellowships, said Kanter, are interdisciplinary and action-oriented — “long and strong” versions of executive education.

“This is going to be a lively, exciting, and major opportunity,” based on real-world leaders who cross professional borders in search of innovation, she said. “And we hope the program is also an innovation for the University.”