Intellectual Leadership

After leaving academia, I still wanted to be an intellectual, but I wasn’t sure how.

To some extent, I’ve been able to pursue that vocation through the traditional “public intellectual” path of writing and speaking. But I’ve also had the opportunity to develop this vocation through a collection of projects I think of as “intellectual leadership.”

In using this term, I am indebted to two people: the historian Garry Wills and my colleague Jeff Leitner. Jeff is the one who first applied the term “intellectual leadership” to my work, borrowing from Wills’s book Certain Trumpets. In that volume, in which Wills explores various models of leadership, he devotes a chapter to the question of how scholars lead. Most of them don’t, he concludes, and maybe shouldn’t — the chief goal of a scholar, after all, is to pursue a distinctive vision of truth regardless of who will follow. This is how I view my friends in the academy, and I deeply respect their work.

But intellectual leadership is something different. To be clear, it isn’t thought leadership (a public relations strategy that establishes someone as an expert in the public sphere). Instead, it’s the pursuit of intellectual projects specifically designed to include and activate other people, leading them toward a goal that no one can quite define before the journey begins. Wills’s model is Socrates, whose work consisted of open-ended engagement in the agora rather than scholarly seclusion. Intellectual leaders, Wills writes, “go toward potential followers, cultivate them, satisfy their needs. They show a healthy ‘openness’ to others’ concerns.”

In another context, my friend Jeff assessed my work this way, writing: “Andrew has become expert at constructing programs and artifacts that serve not as the last word on a subject, but as the launching point of a shared inquiry, of a sincere collaboration with his followers. Rather than seal his ideas inside books, articles and public talks, he creates living expressions of his ideas that others can poke and prod and ultimately contribute to.”

All of these projects have been connected to initiatives I launched with Jeff and our partner Howell Malham. It began with Insight Labs, a five-year odyssey in which we partnered with more than 60 organizations to tackle their most difficult problems. As part of the Labs process, I conducted long-form interviews designed to guide Lab participants toward conceptual breakthroughs, as well as to capture the most important ideas that emerged from our collaborate sessions. I also designed more elaborate inquiries into the future of public schools, the role of art in corporations, the memorialization of genocide, and other subjects. Each of these involved the investigation and synthesis of a wide range of views.

Through our company GreenHouse, I’ve realized a number of intellectual leadership projects with partners and clients. Here are two of my favorite examples from our work as Innovators in Residence at the University of Southern California:

Health Plus Social – When USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work launched its new nursing program, we knew that the program should be grounded in the social determinants of health. But we were dissatisfied with the way in which this important idea has been translated into the education of health care professionals like physicians and nurses. I talked with ten leaders in the field about the idea, then identified a series of “convergence points” among their ideas. Together, these constitute a scaffolding that can be used to reconcile emerging knowledge about the social underpinnings of health with the practical needs of developing practitioners.

The New Social Good – The profession of social work has its roots in the ideas of Jane Addams, a thinker with radical notions of how society can serve its most vulnerable members through institutional transformation. But since the Progressive Era, social work has shifted toward a more individual focus, with the vast majority of practitioners working one-on-one in clinical settings. As part of an effort to return the discipline to its more expansive origins. I designed a year-long inquiry with faculty at the school in which I interviewed an array of thinkers about what the “social good” category means now and where it’s headed. Then we prompted social work educators and academics to reckon with this idea, inspiring new ideas about how their profession could fit into a world where many different disciplines are doing good in new ways.

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