Effective Leaders Hone Skills Across Sectors

By Nora Silver

Did you follow the huge coordination problems of disaster-relief efforts in the Philippines? Have you wondered why some countries can’t provide clean water and sanitation? Do the problems of persistent poverty or climate change sometimes seem hopeless?

Challenges like these are complex and often global. They are beyond the ability of any one organization or one sector to solve on its own. Substantial progress – progress on a scale in line with the problems themselves – requires collaboration between governments, for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations and social enterprises.

Some organizations are already doing this well. The Environmental Defense Fund comes to mind, as do the Broad Foundations and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Key to such organizations are leaders who lead beyond the walls of their organizations, who know how to engage others and how to leverage skills they acquired in many different sectors.
Let me demonstrate by two examples.

Patrick Meier. After a major disaster, government responders often rely on help from private-sector news organizations and humanitarian groups to identify the most urgent priorities. Meier, currently the Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computer Research Institute, is usually at the forefront of such collaborations.

When Meier saw news about the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, he quickly spearheaded an effort by two nonprofit groups – Ushahidi and Medic Mobile – to pinpoint relief needs through crowd-sourcing.

The groups created a social-media platform that allowed Haitian victims to send pleas for help through free text messages. Meier recruited Tufts students to translate the messages, filter them by geographic area and type of need, and to help connect victims with rescue workers. The effort ultimately entailed collaborations with a slew of for-profit and non-profit organizations, from the Haitian cellular carrier Digicel to local radio stations and on-the-ground relief groups.

Meier’s experience across social sectors has been crucial to his success. He has consulted extensively for the United Nations; co-founded the Harvard Humanitarian Institute’s crisis-mapping program; and was director of crisis-mapping at Ushahidi. That cross-cutting background enables Meier to hone and employ skills from many sectors and bring together experts from very different backgrounds. His mission, he says, is to “bridge the humanitarian and technology communities.”

Farooq Kathwari. Kathwari, the CEO of Ethan Allen, has a vision – creating opportunities for all people. For Kathwari, the best way to give people a chance is to develop a robust economy that provides jobs. But Kathwari focuses on more than profits. His insistence on treating employees and even contractors fairly has defined his leadership style. “Ego is not tolerated” says a VP at Ethan Allen. Kathwari is also known for his hands-on approach to management, reflecting his attitude that there is no job too small.

These qualities have made Kathwari an effective leader in the peacebuilding movement and in politics, where seeing other people as equals is critical to finding common ground. Kathwari supports peacebuilding in his native Kashmir and advises the U.S. government. He also serves on the Council on Foreign Relations as well as on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Kathwari founded the Kashmir Study Group to tackle the conflict over Kashmir that has afflicted South Asia for more than half a century. The group includes academics, foreign policy specialists and prominent U.S. legislators. Members have differing views on the problem, but they are united in the conviction that the conflict must be peacefully resolved and that all sides have a responsibility to initiate a process that produces a genuine solution.

Through his work, Kathwari has learned not only to lead a company but also to lead a world toward peace.

Business schools have much to learn from Kathwari and Meier, who represent a wave of leaders who tackle great challenges across sectors. Schools can place students on the boards of nonprofit organizations that deal with public education or other pressing issues. Students can consult at public health organizations or intern at public-private partnerships that work on climate change.

Business schools must teach what drives success in the political and social as well as economic spheres. Teaching students to value the contributions of sectors beyond business, and providing them the skills to participate in different sectors, helps them become entrepreneurs who will lead and thrive in a cross-sector world. Try doing business in China without understanding the government. Or entering a new market without understanding the local culture and people’s behavior. Try changing public education without a good understanding of metrics.

When students engage in real-world, cross-sector problem-solving, they hone the skills for leadership that will prepare them to solve the complex global challenges they will face.

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