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In just over 6 weeks we launch the first in our International Social Innovation Challenge Series, in partnership with OP Jindal Global University and Lahore University of Management Sciences, and supported by the British Council. 25 of the best and brightest students from each university will be working collaboratively on the issue of empowering women in safer communities. It’s the latest iteration in a series of international programmes we’ve been running, rooted in a commitment to expanding the horizon of how  higher education can cultivate social leadership, albeit in microcosm. Since what is social is no longer confined to the charity sector but bleeds, if not seamlessly, but effectively, to the realms of government and the private sector, what we’re really talking about is leadership for the world at large.

Over the past few years our understanding of social leadership has settled around some common themes, even if they have been articulated in slightly different language. IDEO’s Tim Brown, for instance, has given us T-shaped leadership, by which he describes people with two kinds of characteristics:

“The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

In the final pages of The Blue Sweater, Acumen Fund CEO Jacqueline Novogratz tells us much the same thing:

“more than any one subject, judgement, empathy, focus, patience and courage should be studied and cultivated. As our world  gets more complex, smart and skilled generalists who know how to listen to many perspectives across multiple disciplines will become more critical than ever”

Pamela Hartigan’s notion of the “amphibious” leader places greater emphasis on the “vertical stroke of the T”possession of a singular skill in depth-  but similarly prizes mobility, agility and diversity:

S/he has developed expertise in one or more content areas, changed job positions every three to five years, preferably worked in multiple sectors and in different geographies and cultural contexts — and has fluency in more than one language.

Here’s the rub: according to The Omidyar Network’s Sal Giambanco, professionals who possess such attributes (global astuteness, operational agility and technological literacy) will significantly outpace supply over the next 10-15 years.”

It’s worth pondering that for a moment. Despite the rapid expansion of the higher education sector around the world, we are not able to meet the demand for social leadership.

Why is that the case? Damningly, Hartigan  concludes that university curricula, as currently designed, are not orientated to such the production of such attributes. The opportunities to cultivate such attributes are, “more often than not”, “provided through non-curricular activities, not as part of the “core” courses required to attain a degree”.  Hartigan is specifically referring to MBA programs, but she might as well have been talking about higher education in general. The Amani Institute, an organisation set up to provide high quality talent for the social sector, rationalises its own existence because of the “critical failure in higher education”, arguing that although they are beset by calls to provide more experiential learning, universities “cannot re-tool their infrastructures fast enough to enable this transition”.

As I see it, this is an undoubted indictment, but equally a stirring challenge. On one hand the world is crying out for agile, empathetic, boundary-spanning and mobile professionals with the capacity to work effectively and collaboratively to solve problems which grow ever more complex and defy any one disciplinary lens. What will it take for universities, rarely known for their agility, to rise to the challenge and integrate opportunities for social leadership into their core programmes?

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