Think Outside the Building

How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time


By Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Formats and Prices




$22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 28, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

One of the leading business thinkers in the world offers a bold, new theory of advanced leadership for tackling the world’s complex, messy, and recalcitrant social and environmental problems.

Over a decade ago, renowned innovation expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter co-founded and then directed Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. Her breakthrough work with hundreds of successful professionals and executives, as well as aspiring young entrepreneurs, identifies the leadership paradigm of the future: the ability to “think outside the building” to overcome establishment paralysis and produce significant innovation for a better world.

Kanter provides extraordinary accounts of the successes and near-stumbles of purpose-driven men and women from diverse backgrounds united in their conviction that positive change is possible.

A former Trader Joe’s executive, for example, navigated across business, government, and community sectors to deal with poor nutrition in inner cities while reducing food waste. A concerned European banker used the power of persuasion, not position, to find novel financing for improving the health of the oceans. A Washington couple enticed global partners to join an Uber-like platform to match skilled refugees with talent-hungry companies. A visionary journalist-turned-entrepreneur closed social divides by giving fifty million social media users access to free local education and culture.

When traditional approaches are inadequate or resisted, advanced leadership skills are essential. In this book, Kanter shows how people everywhere can unleash their creativity and entrepreneurial adroitness to mobilize partners across challenging cultural, social, and political situations and innovate for a brighter future.


Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.

Tap here to learn more.



Irritation and impatience were a constant background noise as I wrote this book. I had spent too much time at dinner table conversations accompanied by fine whines—the complaining cry, not the chardonnay. On both social media and in face-to-face conversations, I heard people whining about an almost endless number of complex, divisive, and seemingly unsolvable problems and then grumbling about an absence of bold, imaginative leadership to fix them.

Only ostriches could fail to notice that the world is full of scandals, crises, disasters, and warnings of more catastrophes to come—not to mention hurt feelings, real losses, greater stress, and a diminished sense of opportunity. I sometimes poured the whines myself. But as a generally upbeat and optimistic person, I wanted less whining and more doing. If there are big problems, I thought, then we shouldn’t just sit around and complain about them. We should mobilize more people to think bigger and differently about how to engage in positive action.

That is why I wrote this book. It reflects a search for new possibilities for positive change. I want to show more people how to innovate and drive change that can reshape current institutions and stimulate the creation of new ones. It is a manual for moving leadership to a whole new level.

Turning Whines into Works: The Basis for Advanced Leadership

Too many people get set in their ways. They prefer routine tasks and the comfort of the status quo to the risk of innovation. But passivity is depressing, and grumbling without a goal for change turns people into victims. In contrast, doing something, almost anything, is energizing. Taking actions to address big challenges, however small the steps seem at first, can whittle the seemingly impossible down to manageable size. Positive actions can generate a sense of purpose that provides meaning to life—and improves health too. Positive actions can start changing the culture by showing people new possibilities. Grab people with exciting demonstrations, and their hearts and minds will follow.

Over many years of focusing on leadership and change, I’ve seen outstanding examples of people with courage and imagination. These innovators and entrepreneurs are motivated to break convention and think outside their professional buildings to take on big problems with new approaches. As the late, great management theorist Peter Drucker liked to say, every problem is an opportunity for an entrepreneurial solution. I tell the stories of many of these role model leaders in this book. But the issue is that there just aren’t enough of them. Time and time again, I have also observed that the skills for changing culture and social institutions are woefully underdeveloped. Even people at the top of their game in businesses and professions who thought they could take their expertise and apply it to a big problem such as climate change, racial justice, gender equity, or health disparities often fell on their faces, despite all the good intentions in the world.

To open new pathways and light the way, I’m offering this book as a source of inspiration and a guide to action. I want it to awaken a sense of purpose for an augmented kind of leadership that can make a difference in the world.

I distill the best lessons from my years of researching, consulting, teaching, and walking the talk by not just observing others but by doing it myself. My work included cofounding a bold social innovation aimed at deploying a new leadership force for the world. In late 2004, Rakesh Khurana, Nitin Nohria, and I wanted to take a shot at filling the leadership gap and identifying underutilized leadership skills. We started envisioning a new stage of higher education, one that would target experienced leaders transitioning from primary careers to their next years of service. Imagine that: we thought we could get accomplished people off golf courses and into college courses.

It was an audacious goal in other ways too. We felt that all the big problems, whether in health, education, communities, or the environment, couldn’t be solved by any one profession or discipline alone. So we had to get all of Harvard involved—every single field and school—a daunting outside-the-building, silo-busting goal.

In this book, I describe the natural history of innovation and change through the eyes of dozens of other leaders, accomplished or aspiring, including challenges, effective practices, obstacles, setbacks, and celebrations. This is not just theory. We lived through every one of them ourselves.

The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) was in operation by December 2008 with our first cohort of courageous pioneers (including a former astronaut who became head of NASA). This 2009 group would devote a calendar year to the program, as did others since. On my watch as chair and director for fourteen years, over ninety top faculty members, over twenty staff, and over three hundred other experts contributed to this new education for new leadership. By December 2018, ALI had proven its concept, accumulating nearly five hundred ALI fellows and partners in ten cohorts, moving from pilot project to permanent entity, and is still growing.

The critical test was what the renewed leaders did afterward. Many fellows took on big, important problems and opened new pathways for improved lives worldwide—the estimate from surveys was that perhaps one hundred million lives were touched by fellows’ innovative social purpose projects in the first ten years. ALI fellows started over one hundred new entities, products, or services, some of them making a profit. Others joined existing social change organizations to help transform or grow them, and a few ran for public office.

What Is “Advanced” About Advanced Leadership?

The name advanced leadership started out as a bit of wordplay to entice experienced, distinguished people to join a still-embryonic movement. But the intent had never been about age; the name refers to the additional skills necessary to address messy, complex systems problems. In fact, we never used the R word (retirement), even for people who are transitioning from their primary income-earning years to their next years of service; they are merely shifting their main focus, which can happen at any time in life. In today’s multicareer economy, with lower job security and more gig-economy opportunities to use spare time and a car to drive for Lyft or to rent spare space through Airbnb, people can have a portfolio of activities at any one point. Only in a shrinking number of large corporations or bureaucracies do people have long-term employment, linear careers, and a fixed date to leave completely—but even then, they might stay on as part-time consultants. And professionals—lawyers, physicians, headhunters, consultants, investors—can maintain some clients while turning their attention to projects with a social mission. They are in transition rather than gone.

But that is not the most important point. Advanced leadership refers less to a life stage than to a mode of action. It is a step beyond the kind of leadership, great or otherwise, that is exercised primarily within a single organization or field single-mindedly focused on furthering its own goals. Advanced leadership broadens the scope of leadership. It involves working beyond boundaries, across silos, and outside established structures. It stems from a sense of purpose oriented toward changing the system, whether a particular ecosystem or a broader array of institutions and expectations. It touches on skills and insights useful for entrepreneurs and innovators of any profile who are trying to solve significant problems that cut across sectors. Those are exactly the kinds of problems plaguing the world that produce barrels of whines.

A quirky analogy can help explain this difference. Advanced leadership is to leadership as Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire. Those famous movie dancers of another era covered a lot of territory to wide acclaim. But although Fred Astaire was a great leader, guiding the dance, Ginger Rogers was the advanced leader. As the old joke goes, she had to do everything he did but backward and in high heels. Like Astaire, great leaders can operate on well-mapped territory where they can see where they’re going because goals are clear. But advanced leaders see and tackle problems that are intractable precisely because no one really knows exactly what to do or what the direction is. There is a Ginger Rogers–like aspect in feeling extra encumbrances from tottering on the high heels of controversy and always worrying about stumbling.

When a male partner from a private equity firm said that the challenges of his project on college affordability for low-income students made him “feel like Ginger Rogers,” I knew that a new set of leaders was ready to start dancing with the stars.

This book tells the story of many imaginative, energetic men and women who create smart innovations by using advanced leadership skills. They include people whom I came to know in depth; some stories were captured in nearly fifty detailed case studies and hundreds of interviews. I observed and advised numerous others around the world exercising advanced leadership at all ages and in formal jobs, and some of their stories are told here too. I saw that CEOs and top executives in established organizations wanted to take their companies in new directions and needed advanced leadership to stimulate innovation, maximize impact beyond financial success, or address institutional problems that get in the way of business, such as a reliable food supply, the impact of climate change, the introduction of new technology, or an education system failing to produce enough skilled workers. My observations included civic leaders and social entrepreneurs working tirelessly to build coalitions to address societal and community problems that others had neglected or abandoned, such as removing the vestiges of racially insulting statues from a city or developing a new kind of high school. I worked with rising younger leaders who brought the entrepreneurial spirit to find new solutions to old problems, such as founding a service corps or helping Israeli and Palestinian youth create ventures together that could build both peace and broader prosperity.

What all of them have in common is the desire to move beyond established structures to chart new pathways where ambiguity, complexity, and conflict reign. They find new ideas and engage in new modes of action. They must think outside the building.

Exercising Advanced Leadership: Themes and Skills

Advanced leadership rests on persuasion, not the power of position. It involves hustle, not hierarchy. Innovators use advanced leadership skills to create smart innovations for societal impact—savvy, creative, and well-informed projects. These ventures take many forms and use many financial models. Sometimes they are also “smart” in their use of the latest digital tools and technology.

The chapters ahead tell the stories of numerous men and women with diverse backgrounds tackling projects to make a difference in the world. Seeing them in action illuminates essential ingredients of advanced leadership. Key lessons include the following:

• Why there’s a need for advanced leadership. The prevalence and nature of big, intractable social, environmental, and institutional problems. How established structures impede change, but how small steps outside the building, sector, or industry can transcend negativity and find new possibilities.

• How to find a new supply of leaders motivated to tackle big problems. How the three Cs of capabilities, connections, and cash can be used in new ways.

• How to see and break out of the seven perverse traps of career success. Erecting the scaffolding that supports moving outside the building to take on new work with a new identity.

• How to read the mood and needs of the times, awaken a passion for social change, and tune in to opportunities. Understanding the role of purpose and meaning in defining an area for attention. Why it’s worth it to dream big and think bigger than you are.

• How to find gaps that can be filled by creative new approaches. Using contextual intelligence, taking random walks and far afield trips, and shaking kaleidoscopes.

• How to create a new narrative and tell an inspiring story that galvanizes audiences. Why reframing the past helps to create the future. How to pitch a big, inclusive tent. The virtues of showing more than telling.

• How to identify the right allies and supporters. Applying the Change Agent Rule of Three: engaging allies, neutralizing opponents, and converting undecideds. Why advanced leadership takes more than a village—it takes a cross-sector, multistakeholder coalition.

• How to exercise influence without formal authority. How to persuade, cajole, and even beg in order to assemble the resources to move forward. Preselling, trading favors, and becoming an expert and connector.

• How to master the messy, muddled, miserable middles of change. Why innovation always takes longer and costs more. What can go wrong, and how to be prepared for overcoming obstacles. Who gives up, and who keeps going. Knowing when to pivot and persist instead of pulling out.

• How to move along the road to impact. Finding paths to scaling innovative ventures: growth in size or growth by idea diffusion. The principles for being ready for growth from the beginning. Joining forces to create wider ecosystem change.

Innovation and change can’t follow a fixed script. The work is more like improvisational theater, which takes shape in response to observer feedback. The leaders who define the action can stumble, fumble, hit dead ends, and even fail; the work can be improved upon at many points. Over time, ventures that once were innovations that changed institutional pathways can stagnate and get stuck inside the building. That’s the nature of institutions. But when the mission is strong and coalitions of support have been built, advanced leaders can find new ways to renew and continue the effort. Along the road to impact, projects gain power from connections across many initiatives, ventures, innovations, and campaigns, which merge to create movements and change the world. This takes leadership to a whole new place.

The Past and Future of Leadership

Advanced leadership rests on reading the zeitgeist, but I propose that it is also part of forming the mood of the times. It involves a way of working on complex, messy problems begging for innovative, outside-the-building thinking. It is an emerging worldview of direct positive action, of a creative entrepreneurial mind-set, of taking on leadership without anyone asking you to do it. This mode is critically important for addressing the problems that people care about.

The pace of change might seem impossibly fast now, generating confusion and anxieties, but it seemed that way to our recent ancestors too. For a century or more, observers have said that change is speeding up. As a result, in the decades after World War II, planned change became a discipline intended to manage transitions and upheavals. In 1969, leadership guru Warren Bennis wrote that change was the biggest story in the world he saw then.1 Fifty years ago, he delineated just about all the issues the world still faced in 2019. His list is like old whines in new bottles: the environment, racial and gender disparities, impoverished communities, fears of technology, and dysfunctional politics. Leadership emerged as a key factor in whether change could be tamed.

An interesting thing happened along the way from then to now: the study of leadership tracked the times. It started as “great man” (yes, overwhelmingly male) histories of monarchs, generals, tyrants, presidents, and prime ministers. Governing or its overthrow were at the forefront for audiences relishing tales of wars, battlefields, and huge historical events. Another wave was added as leadership became something that chiefs of any kind were supposed to exercise, and business CEOs became the heroes, some of whom wrote their own books about how they transformed this or that company. Riding that wave, leadership was soon said to be a career asset for anyone, with a burgeoning advice genre for aspiring corporate ladder climbers or start-up founders. Leadership theory moved from the art of war to the art of business-building.

What’s next? I think it is the positive and democratizing force of advanced leadership, which looks beyond single organizations and heroic commanders to wider systems. This approach is sorely needed in my home country. Many analysts have decried the loss of social capital in America since the 1950s, as Robert Putnam did in his famous book Bowling Alone. Technology appears to have increased that social isolation, enabling people to retreat to their screens rather than talk with the people around them, as Sherry Turkle showed in her book Alone Together.2

But the situation is perhaps not so grim. I think that a swelling force of advanced leaders could create new versions of engagement and new clubs of people united in a quest for a better world. Although people might bowl alone rather than in leagues, they start projects and raise money together, and not just in fancy homes and hotel ballrooms. I’m struck by a story I was told about how cattle ranchers in rural Montana, who lived far apart, drove long distances to host or attend spaghetti dinners to raise funds to help any member of their community who was in trouble. Whatever their political views or ethnic differences, the ranchers took responsibility for improving their corner of the world.

In the nineteenth century, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about a self-organizing America. That’s the same spirit that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said makes politics still work, even in troubled times. It’s what award-winning social entrepreneur Alan Khazei called “big citizenship.” It’s the activism that Report for America journalists are finding in small communities that don’t usually make the national news.3

For every trend we whine about, there’s often a countertrend that can provide the basis for new kinds of action. As many Americans appear to retreat into homogeneous enclaves full of xenophobia and tribal “my group first” sentiments, some so-called left-behind communities illustrate the opposite of the hostility and divisiveness they are assumed to foster. The fading, mostly white town of Lewiston, Maine, for example, found its economy revived and community renewed by an influx of black Somali immigrants. That was not without problems, to be sure, but it is an example that says that racial tensions and fear of strangers are not inevitable. Rewriting the past to emphasize those American values, which encourage leadership from anywhere, would be a good basis for creating the future.

Major established organizations are showing their ages—not to mention their roles in numerous scandals and abuses that were covered up in once-revered buildings, including universities and churches. Institutions cry out for rejuvenation through innovation. New starts can come from the actions of advanced leaders who take responsibility for finding a better path. As more castles crumble, establishments will have to share power, and buildings will have to open to the streets. In some cases, this is literal; the streets are sites for protests and rallies. Those modes can sometimes help start movements for change but can also fizzle (consider Occupy Wall Street or Arab Spring), and they can turn into angry crowds that emphasize destruction rather than showing new models. The way to avoid letting chaotic mobs seize control is to pitch inclusive tents and build purpose-fueled villages outside the castles of our era.

When more people flex their leadership muscles and find the courage to take on big problems, they exude the optimism of activism. That positive energy can be contagious and can unite us in new ways. By undertaking the daunting yet meaningful task of making a difference in the world, advanced leaders can transform the lives of many people—including their own.

Mobilizing for positive institutional change should be the responsibility of aspiring and accomplished leaders everywhere. If we think of ourselves as spectators or consumers, imbibing fine whines without doing anything about the problems, then we abdicate leadership to possible demagogues. But if legions of people get involved, I’m hopeful that outside-in or bottom-up renewal can overwhelm top-down toxicity. When the national gets ugly, the local can be beautiful.

This book offers a wake-up call, numerous inspiring stories, and a field guide for the journey toward leadership with significant positive impact. It’s high time that the journey begins.



Demand and Supply



Big Problems and the Need for Advanced Leadership

For anyone who wishes that the world could be a better place, there is no shortage of pressing problems to consider. A starter list might include chronic homelessness, health disparities, education access and quality, natural disasters attributed to climate change, threats and displacement from new technology, gun violence, opioid abuse, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and refugee crises. Not everyone agrees on the nature of causes and solutions. Yet the problems seem to hit closer to home all the time. Diseases once contained in obscure, distant nations now fly to other countries on an airplane. Droughts give rise to ruinous rural wildfires, and coastal cities experience destructive flooding. Refugees cross borders into settled middle-class neighborhoods. Drug overdoses and teen suicides can hit any family.

Many of these are intertwined and show up on a next-generation priority list. The world’s top three urgent problems, according to a survey of 31,500 rising leaders from 186 countries, are climate change; large-scale conflict and wars; and inequality, including income inequality and discrimination.1 It’s one thing to name the problems; it’s quite another to do something about them. Big issues like these are hard to put in one container. They flow across communities and nations; they spill over the walls dividing organizations, industries, sectors, and professional disciplines.

Behind every big problem are hardened institutional pathways reinforced by taken-for-granted norms and an array of established organizations and groups that think they have the answers (but often don’t). The public has low trust in elites, experts, and establishments because some problems have worsened on their watch. Societal problems are messy and complex; addressing them takes multiple efforts on multiple fronts, not just one. We are constantly urged to think outside the box, but that is no longer enough. We need a bigger and bolder frame of reference that can create more and better leaders along with a new theory of leadership to guide them.

Some intractable institutional problems are so enormous that it might not seem possible to do anything about them. That’s where a broader array of leaders, armed with advanced leadership skills, come into play. When problems can’t be solved using conventional approaches, motivated leaders can use innovative thinking to find new routes to change. Consider one problem almost as big as the planet itself: the health of the oceans.

Boiling the Ocean

A piece of folk wisdom—“you can’t boil the ocean”—is often used as a warning about taking on an impossibly gigantic task. Are we right to be cautious, or is it just an excuse for accepting the status quo? If someone did want to boil the ocean—or stop it from boiling under climate change—she would first need to know why it is an important problem, understand the institutions that constrain change, and then find a way to dive in.

Torsten Thiele, for example, was determined to find new approaches to keep the ocean from boiling. He grew up on the coast of the North Sea and in his youth helped create a sanctuary for dolphins, the first one for the type of dolphin that lived in those waters. Years later, Thiele reached a stage in life when he could have relaxed on the beach. Instead, he plunged into the ocean.

A multilingual German working in London, Thiele had been a top financial executive with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and later with Investec Bank. Thiele had seen big challenges before. At Investec, he had worked in telecom finance including projects to bring the internet to Africa and undersea cables across the Pacific Ocean. That’s when he was struck by the simple economics of deep-sea sensors on subsea cables: the ability to get advanced warning of a tsunami appeared to be worth so much more than the cost of installing these sensors. He wondered why there was so little investment of this sort. “What a difference this could have made at Fukushima!” he exclaimed later about the earthquake that caused devastating damage to a nuclear reactor in Japan.

Out on the water, he saw other Pacific Ocean problems firsthand. “In Indonesia I sailed along the Wallace line to commemorate the centenary of this great naturalist,” he recalled, referring to the British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, who marked the change of ecosystems between Asia and Australia. “I was shocked to see the conditions of the sea in which local children were swimming and playing, full of plastic and other debris.” He flashed back to the playful dolphins of his childhood. His close-up focus on the Pacific began to raise his concerns about the health of the oceans in general. He zoomed out to see the big picture.

An avid environmentalist, Thiele began learning everything he could about the problems, the existing groups, and the approaches.

Ocean Health as Human Health

Oceans are fundamental to life, producing more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, encompassing 97 percent of all the water on Earth, and playing a fundamental role in weather patterns.2 This is just one reason that people in Columbus and Chattanooga should care about oceans as much as people in coastal Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. As if that weren’t enough, oceans provide a major source of food, either directly through fishing or indirectly through shipping. Oceans are vital platforms for getting food and other goods from one place to another, via about $4 trillion worth of shipping annually.3

Damage to oceans creates surges of harm. In vitally important ways, ocean health is human health. But the condition of the oceans is deteriorating. Over 90 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited or fully exploited.4 And coral reefs—home to over a million species that provide food and resources for hundreds of millions of people—are projected to disappear by 2050 if current trends continue.5


  • "Striking...This realistic and hopeful manual shows how accomplished individuals can tackle problems whose victims often lack resources to take action."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • "Stimulating...Buoyed by strong writing and an encouraging tone, Kanter's thorough and thought-provoking guide will be a boon for veteran leaders who want to put their well-tested skills to new-and socially constructive-use."—Publishers Weekly
  • "I feel so strongly about this book and its message that I want everyone who aspires to make a difference to read it. It is the quintessential guide for answering the question we all eventually ask: Have I accomplished my purpose in life? As a graduate of West Point and an Airborne Ranger infantry officer I learned to ask, 'If not me, who?' Here are the personal tools for getting it done, showing us how small pebbles can make big waves."—Robert A. McDonald, 8th US Secretary of Veterans Affairs; retired chairman, president & CEO of Procter & Gamble
  • "Kanter's book lays out the next big step in innovation: the bold leadership to imagine new solutions to big problems of communities and the world. Her brilliant new book is a compelling read, full of fascinating stories and breakthrough ideas."—Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of Pepsico
  • "In this season of public appetite for big solutions to big problems, Kanter's Think Outside the Building is both a clarion call and a map for new leaders to step up."—Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts
  • "Rosabeth Moss Kanter has done it again! This is the best book on leadership written in this century. It may change the world--at the least make it better."—Congresswoman Donna Shalala, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • "Think Outside the Building is an excellent and inspiring guide for anybody who is trying to make change in the world. Drawing on the stories of dozens of effective efforts, Rosabeth Moss Kanter has created a guidebook that, with wisdom and optimism, extracts the essential techniques for success--especially for new initiatives with a mission to improve society."
    Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of Columbia University School of Journalism
  • "Drawing on fifty detailed case studies and hundreds of interviews, Rosabeth Moss Kanter distills her experiences with Harvard's Advanced Leadership Initiative in this informative and fascinating volume. Both an 'inspiration and a guide to action,' this book challenges the reader with narratives describing extraordinary new approaches to old institutional and societal problems; Kanter has penned essential reading for twenty-first century leaders."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

On Sale
Jan 28, 2020
Page Count
352 pages

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

About the Author

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is an influential and well-known professor at Harvard Business School (holding the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship), specializing in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. She is also chair and director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, a Harvard-wide innovation she co-founded in 2008, to build a growing international model that helps successful leaders at the top of their fields apply their skills to national and global challenges and build a new leadership force for the world.

Learn more about this author