Nation & World

Interdisciplinary program on leadership hosts a host of fellows

7 min read

Susan Leal intends to use her public sector expertise to address issues of water management and climate change. Former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. is passionate about health care. Robert Whelan will likely turn his business acumen toward education.

The three retired professionals are back in school as part of a new University-wide, interfaculty pilot project aimed at providing a rigorous educational program for experienced leaders seeking “encore careers” in public service.

The Advanced Leadership Initiative, a yearlong program hosting 14 fellows from wide-ranging backgrounds, including finance, the military, education, and the law, kicked off in December at Harvard with a three-day orientation. The innovative program is a collaboration between faculty at Harvard’s Schools of Business, Government, Law, Education, and Public Health.

The program resembles a variety of different Harvard Schools and programs combined to form a unique curriculum. Participants audit classes from around the University (an activity similar to that of Nieman Fellows), take part in field seminars (modeled after those offered at Harvard Business School), and attend short, intense courses and workshops where the fellows, faculty, and students converge to discuss leadership topics and relevant cases on broad social issues, as well as engage in independent study. At the end of the year, each participant will present a paper outlining his or her plan of attack.

The idea for the program developed from something of an intellectual “perfect storm.” As part of a task force addressing Harvard’s expansion to Allston in 2003, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and other professors from the University were asked to consider ways of sharing campus space for things like colloquia and conferences.

The notions of shared physical space made the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Leadership and colleagues such as the Kennedy School’s David Gergen and the Harvard School of Public Health’s Howard Koh consider other common areas of interest across the University’s various Schools. Leadership topped the list. Also on Kanter’s mind, after discussions with colleagues such as Rakesh Khurana at the Business School, was the current demographic revolution — the growth of an active aging population — and the knowledge that, as Kanter drily commented, “the world has a lot of problems.”

“We thought, ‘Why can’t we imagine a next stage of higher education, a new kind of program for universities that involves the needs of the 21st century for leaders, one that spans sectors and disciplines, and that taps the best people who have reached the top of their professions and can add to their skills to solve societal problems?’” she said.

Creating a new group of leaders to take on global issues like poverty, health, education, and the environment is only part of the equation. The program’s founders also hope the new effort will become a model for other institutions looking to serve an aging baby boomer population. Another goal is the reciprocal exchange of information: Organizers said they hope fellows will learn from the professors and students they interact with even as the latter benefit from the wealth of information the fellows bring with them.

The collaborative nature of the effort is perhaps its most critical component, said Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of International Education and director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s International Education Policy Program, and one of the program’s founding co-chairs.

“The solutions to the most vexing social challenges in the 21st century are not neatly placed within the confines of the most established disciplines, but lie at the boundaries across disciplines and professions,” said Reimers. “This presents an opportunity to universities to organize productive collaborations across professional boundaries to study and find solutions to these challenges, whether these are the challenges of improving the quality of education in low-income schools in the U.S. or abroad, or the challenges of improving health or social and economic justice.”

The fellows were selected by a subset of the program’s 13 core professors. A real desire to engage with a university and a minimum of 20 to 25 years of demonstrated leadership accomplishments, including innovations in their primary field, were essential requirements.

“We are talking about people who are going to be real change agents,” said Kanter, who heads the program. “If they haven’t shown already that they can influence public opinion, organize something, lead large numbers, lead across borders, then they are not going to be able to tackle problems like poverty in Africa.”

Leal, former head of San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, is amazed at how her interest touches so many Schools at Harvard. Interested in water, wastewater, and the compounding variable of climate change, she has already worked with students in a Business School course on green businesses and conferred with professors from the Kennedy School and an engineering professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

While so much intellectual capital at arm’s length is inspiring, it can also be a little overwhelming, Leal admitted. Still, the California resident said she and the other fellows will look to their years of experience running large agencies, managing thousands, and taking on equally daunting tasks, for guidance.

“We know how to figure things out,” she said, adding that part of the challenge is “taking our past experience and putting that to work, pulling the great knowledge of Harvard and the wisdom that is here and making use of that.

“I am feeling very optimistic that this program will help not only me but my colleagues in making some real, positive improvements in many of the world’s tasks that we have ahead. I think it’s great to pull people together that have a lot of wattage still that want to put it to use.”

For Bolden, leading more than 16,000 Marines is nothing new. Deciding which compelling issue to focus on while at Harvard is.

“We’ve been exposed to so much and there are so many issues that need a champion,” said the veteran of four space shuttle missions who is interested in poverty, education, and health care. Ultimately, Bolden said, he hopes to learn enough to start or back an organization in his hometown of Houston to support patients afflicted with sickle cell anemia, a disease that has taken the lives of friends.

Robert Whelan woke up one morning after leaving the world of corporate finance uncomfortably aware he no longer had an office to go to, no one to report to, and no future plan. A successful investment banker with close to 30 years of experience, the empty nester looked at his dog and said, “OK, pal, now what?”

Although the plan wasn’t in place, the feeling that there was something he still needed to do was. Over the next several years Whelan was involved in a variety of nonprofit and for-profit boards and started two consulting firms, all the while contemplating his next big venture.

Recommended to the Harvard program by a friend, he decided to apply, was accepted, and now is investigating how to address social issues like education, youth development, and health care.

“There’s something nagging at me, there’s something else out there that I should be doing,” he said. “[Something] that would have impact and maybe large impact, and still be doing good, which at this point in my life is more important than doing well.”

For Whelan the Harvard program is bringing him a step closer to that goal. Interacting with professors, students, and other fellows, he said, has helped him shape his thinking in invaluable ways.

“All of my expectations have been exceeded so far.”