Advancing Leadership

“Third-stage” learners using a novel Harvard curriculum engage social challenges.

Michael J. Bush
Mark Feinberg
Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Robert M. Whelan Jr.
James P. Honan

During 2013, Michael J. Bush audited Professor Joseph P. Newhouse’s course on the economics of healthcare policy and worked with Richard Frank, Morris professor of healthcare policy, to better understand a specific social problem: how to cover the costs for people who suffer severe bodily harm—brain trauma, spinal-cord injuries, debilitating burns, catastrophic amputations—and survive, often to require extensive, expensive life-long care. Amid national debate over routine health coverage, the subject might seem esoteric. But for the tens of thousands afflicted and their families, the issue may be even more disastrous than sudden death. The costs of support services often are not covered by traditional medical and disability insurance, long-term care coverage, or workers’ compensation. In many cases, the victims and their loved ones are mostly on their own.

And so on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Bush briefly outlined for a supportive but challenging audience his mathematically precise, actuarially sound proposal for “catastrophic injury life-care annuities,” developed during his year on campus. He concluded that private insurers could affordably provide adequate coverage, and that people would sign up for it—addressing a social problem while creating a tremendous business opportunity. He said he planned to work with disability advocates around the country to persuade the industry to begin offering this mutual solution.

Bush’s presence at Harvard and the forum where he presented his work reflected both a distinctive program and a unique personal passion. The program is the Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI): an opportunity for a cohort of a few dozen midcareer leaders from diverse professions to come to Harvard from around the world to explore how to address vexing social issues, drawing on skills and resources beyond their fields. Bush, for example, has three decades of experience as a senior retailing executive, turnaround manager, and business investor.

The passions vary by fellow, but in Bush’s case, could not be more immediate. As his paper matter-of-factly notes, “I am acutely aware of these issues because my brother was severely brain injured while working a summer job on an oil rig in Texas. It happened 60 days after his eighteenth birthday and 25 days after his high-school graduation.” Two years of coma ensued, followed by prolonged rehabilitation; today, 33 years after the rig accident, Bush’s brother, though conscious, “cannot walk, cannot talk, has use of only one of his arms, suffers from occasional seizures,” and is maintained by “constant supportive living care from an attendant staff”—available only because he has “adequate resources.”

A few days after his remarks, Bush flew to Galveston, where the family holds Thanksgiving with his brother, before continuing home to California.

SIDEBAR: Read about more projects by recent ALI fellows.

“Plan for Influence and Impact”

Other fellows’ motivations and projects bear different emotional weights, but all have benefited from a bundle of educational innovations, now in their sixth year of evolution, that have proven anything but characteristic of Harvard. The visitors, neither regular students nor executive-education enrollees, participate as “fellows” in the Initiative. They spend spring and fall semesters at Harvard, initially taking a course together on “Challenges and Opportunities in Advanced Leadership” (COAL) and auditing other classes relevant to their interests and nascent projects. The initiative, originating in Harvard Business School (HBS), also draws professors from the schools of education, government, law, medicine, and public health, plus the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. ALI’s curriculum and pedagogy—including multiday “think tanks” (immersions in the issues of fields such as education or healthcare) and a midyear travel-study experience (last June, a week in Shanghai)—break the bounds of conventional courses of study. And the fellows’ colleagues, by design, include not only peers from prior ALI cohorts (extending back to the first, in 2009) but also their own spouses (during the semesters in residence) and (on excursions) even older children.

The path to Bush’s November 21 presentation, and those by the other 2013 ALI fellows, can be traced precisely to an October 2005 paper titled “Moving Higher Education to Its Next Stage.” The three HBS authors—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Arbuckle professor of business administration; Rakesh Khurana, then associate professor, now Bower professor of leadership development, master of Cabot House, and College dean-designate; and Nitin Nohria, then Chapman professor of business administration and now dean—were, revealingly, from the school’s general-management and organizational-behavior units (as opposed to finance, technology-management, entrepreneurship, or other fields).

Their paper is a brisk mash-up of higher-education history (the evolution of universities, graduate education, and beyond); obdurate challenges (global poverty, health, education reform, and environmental degradation); and demographics (increasing longevity, the potential for “third-stage” education for professionals—beyond college and graduate school—who have talent, energy, skills, and active post-career time before retirement). From these vantage points, the authors proposed a new role for teaching and learning in “advanced leadership”—beyond extant options in executive education, retraining or vocational retooling, or leisure learning in retirement.

Perhaps most important, in a University that valorizes educating leaders, they defined the term, and their aims, with unusual precision. The advanced leader-learners, they determined, would have to be prepared to address problems that are both technical and political: seemingly intractable issues where known solutions (cures for diseases, food aid) are “mal-distributed,” embedded in complex systems crossing institutional and professional boundaries, and involving diverse stakeholders. For many such problems, research “tends to be oriented toward the technical side, toward specialists’ content, and not toward action or system-change processes that draw on knowledge from special disciplines.” In other words, “[W]e often know more about what than how and who.”

Ameliorating “controversial and systemic” problems, they wrote, depends on “new action models…that involve cross-sector collaboration based on cross-profession expertise.” The best chance to build effective collaborations, in turn, lay in “a new field of practice…particularly well suited to the capabilities and desires of experienced leaders” who have already proven their capacity to shape organizations and effect change in at least one realm and are now eager to develop “solutions to significant societal and global problems.”

To that end, the “students” would be exposed to ways of examining problems and solutions from multiple disciplinary perspectives. They would learn how to assess the legal and political context, the better to define a course of action embracing nonprofit, for-profit, and public enterprises as warranted, and involving multiple partners and participants. And they would learn to read and use public opinion. The candidates would have to be free from other career obligations, able to plunge into “a school for action,” not merely for intellectual discourse. They would, as a cohort, help each other, and they would focus on a practical project: “the detailed plan for influence and impact” on their chosen problem.

As Khurana put it in conversation, he was motivated by a large question: “What is the obligation of the university to society? When are universities seen as most legitimate and thriving?” His answer: when they adapt and renew their mission of creating knowledge and transferring it to new generations. With a generation of accomplished leaders eager for new challenges that give meaning to their lives, the program he and his colleagues envisioned could strengthen universities and societies at the same time.

“What is the obligation of the university to society?” Rakesh Khurana asked himself. “When are universities seen as most legitimate and thriving?”

In 2005, Kanter, Khurana, and Nohria envisioned this paradigm as the prospectus for a new School for Advanced Institutional Leadership. For now, their vision has come to life in the inventive pedagogy and energetic engagements of Harvard’s ALI.

“It Sounds Incredibly Ambitious”

Where Michael Bush’s effort to stimulate a new market for life-care insurance stems from personal experience, Mark Feinberg’s focus—establishing a partnership to develop HIV treatments to meet the needs of low-income countries heavily affected by AIDS—is rooted in his career in academic medicine (working since 1984 on basic and clinical research and as a physician caring for HIV-infected individuals); the public sector (the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine, and service on boards including the Scientific Advisory Board for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—PEPFAR); and the pharmaceutical industry (most recently as vice president and chief public health and science officer for Merck Vaccines). He seeks to bridge “untapped opportunities to promote alignment and collaboration” among those sectors toward an urgent end. When he joined the 2012 ALI fellows’ cohort, he had this project in mind; as it progressed, he remained affiliated as a senior fellow during 2013—one of a handful who devote a second year to pursuing their goals.

Feinberg hopes to “significantly” improve the prospects for “people living in low-income countries heavily affected by AIDS to have access to treatments that would be of greatest benefit to them.” That carefully phrased, even bland, description epitomizes his deliberately low-key rhetoric, his desire to serve as a facilitator in fraught terrain.

In affluent countries, sophisticated drug “cocktails” of highly efficacious antiretroviral medications in single, often once-a-day, “fixed-dose combinations”—complemented by multiple options for those who develop drug resistance to their initial treatments—are making HIV a manageable, chronic condition. PEPFAR and other programs finance therapies for needy nations, but many of these treatments are not widely available in low-income countries. Aid efforts aimed at treating the maximum number of HIV patients there have made tremendous progress, Feinberg says, but much more must be done to make the most effective, convenient combination treatments the routine standard of care for as many infected people as possible—and to significantly increase access to options for those who fail initial therapy. Those patients also need treatment options designed to be most effectively dispensed where healthcare systems are inadequate, and to address the needs of specific HIV-infected populations disproportionally common in many low-income countries: pregnant women, infants, and children; individuals co-infected with tuberculosis. Because these circumstances are rare in wealthier countries, typical market forces that foster development of new drug formulations don’t yield treatments optimized to meet these special circumstances of the low-income countries where most of HIV-infected people live. In other words, this is a classic situation requiring advanced leadership, as ALI’s founders define it.

Feinberg says the innovator companies in fact want to solve the challenges that slow access to optimal antiretroviral regimens for these unmet needs, but cannot do so individually. But they might collaborate, mixing and matching the most effective compounds, and providing access to their intellectual property to low-cost generic manufacturers to help make the drugs cheaply and at large scale. Global health agencies and experts on AIDS treatment would help inform the priority products on which pharmaceutical companies would focus their collaborations. Donors, foundations, and governments could subsidize development and deployment of the best therapies.

Feinberg, experienced across these sectors, has been working in concert with pharmaceutical industry colleagues, global health authorities, public-sector AIDS treatment experts, and AIDS treatment advocates to explore new models for addressing these interconnected issues. Scores of participants—with different technological, political, and historical perspectives—have met in diverse forums to see if they can agree on this longer-term direction for HIV therapy. Each party would need to engage with others more deeply than has previously been comfortable, or feasible. “It sounds incredibly ambitious,” Feinberg concedes—but success would be hugely positive for maximizing the reach, impact, and sustainable benefits of HIV therapy in low-income countries and perhaps, he hopes “for other important diseases, and maybe even other development challenges, of global relevance.”

Despite decades of preparation for his current efforts, Feinberg says, it was important to “have the time and encouraging context to work on this” as an ALI fellow. “Themes important to the ALI curriculum—how one effects change, getting stakeholders to work together, difficult challenges needing new synthetic approaches”—all resonate. And, he continues, so does a lesson that Kanter drives home for every fledgling fellow (it’s known as “Kanter’s Law”): the middle of any project—after the exciting flush of defining the idea and achieving promising early results, but before compelling evidence of success is secure—is the hardest part.

“The Box Isn’t Big Enough”

Introducing the ALI final symposium on November 21, before the 2013 fellows summarized their projects and solicited comments and support, Kanter (speaking as the initiative’s chair and director) reminded them of the difference between great and advanced leadership—a theme she had sounded throughout the year. “You don’t just manage a single organization or network of organizations to success,” she said. “Advanced leaders take on messy problems that cannot be contained by one profession, one field, one business, one organization.” Those “messy” goals may be ill-defined (how to improve education?) or even conflicting, posing the problem of which paths to pursue—a strategic challenge far harder than most businesses face. “You have to figure out what to do” as a result, she said, aligning “multiple stakeholders, often disorganized, who don’t report to you”—and who may not welcome newcomers to their affairs. Because existing institutions fall short, she said, advanced leadership puts a premium on innovation and changing rigid establishments.

“Think outside the building,” Kanter exhorted the fellows. “The box isn’t big enough.” Resorting to a useful metaphor, she concluded, “The difference between great leaders and advanced leaders is the difference between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred Astaire led, and was beautiful to watch. But Ginger Rogers was the advanced leader, because she had to do everything he did backwards and in high heels.”

Kanter’s remarks may not sound like an intellectual prospectus, but they are a fair proxy for the fellows’ common learning adventure: the challenges and opportunities course, COAL. It is meant to equip people who have been accustomed to success in defined roles—running companies, managing law firms, investing assets, leading part of the United Nations—to take on daunting ventures backwards, in high heels.

Thus, although the form is familiar (weekly discussions based on case studies and other readings), COAL’s contents, cases, and faculty members are radically heterogeneous when compared to an HBS class or its analog at any of the other professional schools. Three “modules” cover “sectors and institutional strategies,” “behavioral strategies and skills,” and “moving into action”—the latter, on turning a passion into a practical project.

In the initial unit, Kanter, Khurana, and guest faculty members cover leadership; the distinct roles of government, businesses, and nonprofit enterprises (with illustrations ranging from a case study on water supply to a New Yorker article on conflicts over privatizing the supply in Bolivia); and law, social movements, and social change (with ALI faculty member Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Climenko professor of law, and readings from All Deliberate Speed, his book on Brown v. Board of Education, paired with Kanter’s writing on Nelson Mandela). A class on health systems involves Barry R. Bloom, former dean of the School of Public Health, and sessions touching on education rely on joint HBS-Graduate School of Education cases on school systems.

During the behavior and skills classes, fellows encounter varieties of power (hard, soft, smart) with former dean Joseph S. Nye and lecturer in public policy Peter B. Zimmerman of the Kennedy School. Among other guest teachers, Flom professor of law and business Guhan Subramanian, of the law and business schools, and Kennedy School academic dean Iris Bohnet join Kanter and Khurana to probe complex negotiations and nudges to influence. Professor of management practice William W. George—former chief executive of Medtronic, and member of several boards of directors—reviews authentic leadership and its personal costs. The fellows learn about scaling up social enterprises.

Finally, they receive practical instruction in defining a project and developing its “public narrative” to mobilize resources and support. Then, drawing on their multidisciplinary faculty and peers (including ALIers from earlier cohorts), the fellows channel everything they have learned and the contacts they have made with diverse instructors from audited classes, aiming to articulate the ideas they hope to enact. Following their summer work on their projects, a two-day autumn workshop on mobilizing stakeholders and leading change acts as a lever to focus their projects for unveiling just before Thanksgiving.

Given the aspirational nature of their proposals, Kanter told the 2013 cohort in November, the COAL cases they read on healthcare in India and American civil rights, on law and education, all turned out to matter: “Familiarity with all of them is essential for advanced leadership, even if you’re not expert in every one.”

The “Blank-Napkin Stage”

“I’m a recovering investment banker” was Robert M. Whelan Jr.’s self-introduction last April at ALI’s education think tank—one of the two or three “deep dives” into substantive matters the initiative offers each year. The sessions (open to the Harvard community) depart from the semester model: panels of faculty members, outside experts, and others provide, in effect, the content of a full course during a couple of days, typically in fields that interest a number of fellows (school reform, healthcare). The participants last April ranged from ALI-affiliated faculty members (Ford Foundation professor of international education Fernando M. Reimers, Kanter, Ogletree, and others), to practitioners (John S. Wilson Jr., M.T.S. ’81, Ed.D. ’85, then president-designate of Morehouse College; see “Morehouse Man, Redux,” November-December 2013, page 72), to Whelan himself, an ALI alumnus. His project, on financing students’ college attendance, had made him a “revolutionary” on the subject, he said.

After a career financing start-up companies “from the blank-napkin stage,” Whelan was attracted to ALI, itself a start-up enterprise, and became a fellow in the initial class of 2009. “The beauty of this program is that it gives people the opportunity to figure out what their next chapter is, in a fairly structured way, but within an unstructured environment,” he recalled last spring. “It’s an opportunity to think the big thought and yack the big yack.” Through service on private-school boards, and his own children’s college bills, he had become increasingly aware of rising tuition and “who gets pushed off the edge” as a result. He also reflected that as a first-generation college student, he had been able to attend Dartmouth debt-free “because of my parents’ big sacrifices.” (He later earned an M.B.A. at Stanford.)

As he took courses on managing nonprofit institutions and discussed education with a “highly numerate” former business colleague, Whelan said, a truly blank-napkin idea emerged. Focusing on low-income learners from low-wealth families (net worths of $5,000 to $10,000), he found troubling circumstances: many first-generation students who lack role models, many for whom English is a second language, some who are undocumented and so cannot access funds. These students, frequently older than typical undergraduates, must often shoulder work and family obligations, too. (“Dealing with so many things unrelated to education it’s a wonder they even want to get an education,” he said.) All these students “have a pilot light” waiting to be lit, Whelan said. But he discovered a toxic combination in a shaky job market: pervasive financial illiteracy and onerous levels of college debt (approaching $30,000 on average), even among students enrolled principally at community colleges, vocational-technical institutions, and small liberal-arts or church-affiliated institutions.

Atop all the other odds such students face, the financing system is stacked against them. Student loans are a profitable, trillion-dollar business. Institutions without aid resources have a strong incentive to enroll people—and little reason even to counsel them about the postgraduate burden of making fixed debt-service payments. There are, in other words, powerful stakeholders supporting a status quo in which students bear all the risk.

So Whelan aims at nothing less than “very systemic change.” After several years of work modeling the finances, devising a legally workable “human-capital contract,” and beginning a public discussion on education as an investment to be financed by its returns, his initiative, 13th Avenue Funding, aims to jettison the student-debt paradigm. Instead, it would draw on philanthropic or institutional capital; make grants to students; and replenish those funds from their future earnings—in a pilot, 5 percent of annual income above $18,000, for a set number of years. That is the way Australians finance college; it has been debated in the Oregon legislature (which has not yet appropriated the billions needed to fund a program up front); and economists across the spectrum support the rationale.

Though no longer a blank napkin, Whelan’s enterprise remains experimental. Foundations have been wary about advancing capital. The schools where the need is greatest lack resources. So he and his partners have secured private funds to pilot the program with small groups of students. In the future, 13th Avenue Funding may well be seen as the seed of a major advance over the present system. But for now, the organization is somewhere under the sway of Kanter’s Law, at the midpoint between germination and operating at scale.

Nonetheless, Whelan has found the next chapter in his life’s work. He and his partners proselytize actively about their idea’s clear superiority to the debt and defaults that today stand in the way of many seeking higher education—precisely the sort of problem ALI hopes its fellows will address anew. And his experience serves as an example for successor fellows, suggesting how far their missions can take them, and cautioning about the difficulty of their new work. Whelan’s experience serves as an example for successor fellows, suggesting how far their missions can take them—and cautioning about the difficulty of their new work.

“Moments of Truth”

Whelan’s teaching role at ALI’s education think tank points in a small way to the most distinctive feature of its pedagogy: its omnidirectional nature. It does have an intellectual architecture, derived from HBS and Kennedy School research on leadership and managing change, and embedded in the COAL course on core competencies. (As Kanter puts it, “You lose sight of the water you’re in if you’re a fish. The one thing that gets leaders into trouble most is not seeing the [larger] context”—hence the introduction to diverse sectors, modes of action, and stakeholders through COAL and the think tanks.)

But in practice, ALI is a multifaceted and -tentacled entity. In duration, it is like an academic year (although scheduled during a calendar year, to fit participants’ lives), but it is not connected to any degree studies. The fellows often resemble registrants in executive-education classes, but those typically last only a week or two, and focus on a specific skill or subject. A better analogy for the ALI fellows auditing classes around Harvard might be the Nieman Fellows, journalists taking a year of courses they choose to assemble.

The educational result is unlike anything else on campus—far beyond other interdisciplinary research collaborations. Khurana, a junior professor when the fellowship was conceived, had no idea then that he would be a House master, bridging the freeform lives of undergraduates and the more controlled studies of M.B.A. candidates and their famously planned, vetted HBS case curriculum—or that he would have ALI fellows living in Cabot House and interacting with its residents. The fellows “are phenomenal role models,” he said, giving “clever” College students direct access to “wise” adults whose perspectives provide “moments of truth.” In a word, he said, “It is what the House was meant for.”

The interactions extend to classes, where the intersections of undergraduates, graduate students, and auditing adult fellows amount to a new kind of diversity “on a dimension of life experiences,” Khurana continued. In these teaching moments, “The fellows are the content.” (Pforzheimer professor of teaching and learning Richard J. Light, who isnot affiliated with ALI, reports that when 2013 fellow William A. Plapinger audited a course on higher education, he became an invaluable resource for its master’s degree students; Plapinger, who led Sullivan & Cromwell’s European legal practice, chairs Vassar’s board of trustees, and could provide vivid insights into the decisions trustees face.) The fellows also teach each other, in part by sharing ideas or even collaborating on their projects: Plapinger and Cristián Shea, an investment executive from Chile, combined forces to work on financial aid for international students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities.Undergraduates, graduate students, and auditing adult fellows intersect in classes, creating a new kind of diversity “on a dimension of life experiences.” In these teaching moments, “The fellows are the content.”

They also teach their teachers. Khurana said it had been revealing to observe at close hand the different approaches and “habits of mind” of fellows who are lawyers (focused on the “cleanliness of the idea,” and able to advocate either side), physicians (struggling to reconcile professional norms, patient care, and the health bureaucracy), and business people (pragmatists who focus on “the workability of the idea, not necessarily its elegance”). He came away with a central lesson for ALI itself: “Being problem-driven, it doesn’t really matter where the tools are coming from so long as they help us illuminate something” requiring action. Given the initiative’s distinctive aims, Kanter has even drawn upon fellows’ work to craft nine and counting HBS teaching cases, used in autumn sessions where the current cohort refine their projects.

Outside the class setting, Khurana cited examples of fellows who have mentored graduate students, enlisted undergraduates in executing their projects, or—in the case of a former food-retailing executive—made contacts for M.B.A. students seeking work in the sustainable-foods industry.

What makes all this possible, of course, is the fellows themselves. They are highly accomplished—and highly motivated to be at Harvard (most pay their own way, the equivalent of a full year at the College, plus living and travel expenses during the year).

Still, these elements constitute a lot of energies and intentions to tie together in one program. And there, in assembling ALI by working her contacts, Kanter made her own luck. Although he had not been involved in early planning for the initiative, she asked senior lecturer on education James P. Honan to sit in on a conversation, to draw on his teaching and research in nonprofit management, in measurement of organizations’ performance, and in higher education (in both degree programs and executive-education courses). With that, she attracted one of Harvard’s classroom masters—a teacher who melds diverse people and interests, making connections that lead to cooperative learning.

Honan, now an ALI co-chair and senior associate director, teaches extensively in COAL—he said he found the fellows arrive with “a lot of professional and personal experiences,” making them deep, broad, quick learners whose expertise he aims to “honor.” He is heavily involved each May in helping them prepare brief project proposals (a statement of the problem, who is working on it, the gaps they see, the stakeholders, how to proceed), and then convene in small work groups to refine their statements.

A week later, in what may be ALI’s most defining pedagogical moment, Honan runs the annual “cross-cohort exchange.” The fellows hang up their “shingles” (visual representations of their projects) and solicit comment, share their written proposals, and wait nervously for peers and alumni fellows to sign on, using that highest of high-tech devices, the Post-it®. The notes indicate that another person wants to learn more about a project, or can help advance it, or both. Honan, somehow, calls on people from throughout the room, bringing to bear on a 2013 fellow’s proposal for climate-change action or education reform the expertise of a 2009 fellow and the experiences of someone from the 2011 cohort, and grouping them by interest and affinity for concentrated brainstorming sessions—all in real time. At the fellows’ moment of maximum vulnerability, he connects them with others who have been there, makes their projects real, sets them up for a summer of focused work on developing their ideas. In so doing, he makes the ALI enterprise a continuous, multiyear community of learners and doers. For all the informal connections that arise during the year, Honan said, the cross-cohort exchange is the formal way ALI “deploys the cadre of advanced leaders over a period of time,” in a way degree programs and executive-education classes cannot.

When the fellows reconvene in the fall, it is Honan who leads them in sharpening their projects, and then directs the November capstone experience where they present the refined plans. “Not all of them,” he said, “but many of them will make that transition and get engaged” in solving large social problems.

Along the way, Khurana said, the intergenerational experiences the fellows bring to, and model for, Harvard contribute to a new kind of diversity, “on a dimension of life experiences,” that might well be built into much of what the College and professional schools do. The fellows he has met, he said, are idealistic about pursuing new ventures, and understand that the University context is an ideal setting for the proverbial spreading of wings—exactly the attitude a teacher might hope for in any learner. “I’m excited to see the fellows make that transition,” he said, “and get engaged in trying to develop solutions to large social problems.”

“A Place Where Dreams Can Be Realized”

Early each summer, ALI fellows have the option of joining a learning experience with faculty members off campus—sometimes internationally, to broaden their project perspectives and reflect the international homes and interests of many of their peers themselves. Last June, during an immersion week in Shanghai, several dozen fellows, from various cohorts (many accompanied by family members), learned about Chinese business and the country’s energy and environmental challenges. They took in panels on local intellectual-property law (led by Charles Ogletree), enterprises and entrepreneurship (directed by Rosabeth Kanter), and health and a promising experiment with patient-focused electronic medical records (led by Barry Bloom).

The highlight of the trip—a midweek day outing to Kunshan, a city of some two million people between Shanghai and Suzhou—combined substance with a subtext applicable to the fellows’ own aspirations. Thirty years ago, the area was farmland: mulberry trees. But in 2011, among myriad other products, workers in Kunshan factories assembled 89 million laptop computers, 40 percent of the world’s supply. Even by the standards of the burgeoning Yangtze River delta, the city is an extraordinary economic success, a showcase for China’s oxymoronic Communist Party-led, market-style growth. That status is captured in an HBS case, “Kunshan, Incorporated: The Making of China’s Richest Town,” jointly written by William C. Kirby, Chang professor of China studies and Spangler Family professor of business administration, and Nora Bynum, vice provost for Duke Kunshan University (DKU)—the institution Duke and its Chinese partner, Wuhan University, will open for students this autumn.

A principal in the case is Guan Aiguo, the local Party secretary, who directs his city’s continuing evolution from simple manufacturing to high-tech assembly now and toward a future of value-added, knowledge-based industry, symbolized by the new 200-acre DKU campus the government is funding. During an afternoon briefing in a conference room at the Tsinghua Science Park, accompanied by a panel of six local CEOs (he called them “my partners”), Guan rose to address the delegation of Crimson visitors, capitalists all. He promptly established himself as the ur-capitalist present, extolling Kunshan as “a place where dreams can be realized” and sketching a vision of trained workers, efficient financial markets, and infrastructure that would “create a paradise for entrepreneurs” to rival Cupertino—headquarters for Apple Inc., in Silicon Valley.

Kirby’s case study describes Guan, working within the world’s vastest hierarchy, as an “entrepreneurial bureaucrat.” Kunshan’s leader might well recognize ALI’s Harvard leaders as kindred spirits.

Then, in an exercise that would astonish an American local-government official struggling to fund her city’s pension plan or sort out demands for, say, new street lights, Guan propounded a sweeping strategy—buttressed by management consultants and backed with data—for his town’s future progress. It envisions investing in DKU and other internationally oriented institutions of higher education; raising community health standards; providing home care for retirees; building cultural and leisure facilities, and greener transportation; and relentlessly raising the townspeople’s skills, preparing them for higher-value employment and thus raising incomes many-fold in the years to come. Keeping himself firmly grounded, Guan invited critiques of the plan by e-mail, and referred to the HBS case study as a source for sharpening Kunshan’s vision. It’s been a long time since the era of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Guan surely works with resources—power, finances—far beyond those explored in the different “sectors” in ALI’s curriculum. But the propulsive force of the strategy he laid out, its results to date, and its momentum made Michael Bush’s plan for post-catastrophe life care, or Mark Feinberg’s emerging HIV-therapy collaborative, or Robert Whelan’s idea for upending student financing seem not so far over the horizon after all. 

John S. Rosenberg is editor of Harvard Magazine.

Advanced Leadership fellows’ projects promote job training, better writing, mental-health care, and more. Read the sidebar, “Fellows’ Travels.”

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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