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An internationally respected authority on strategy, innovation, and leadership for change, HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter advocates solving many of the nation’s most pressing problems by recultivating traditional American strengths. As the country approaches the 2008 presidential election, America the Principled: 6 Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again (Crown) offers a nonpartisan agenda for change that Kanter urges U.S. leaders to pursue “at a time when our international standing and influence — not to mention our own self-esteem — are on the line.”

Kanter’s recommendations, which span economic, social, and government concerns, include securing the country’s future by nurturing innovation; getting the work-family balance right; encouraging good companies by demanding transparency and rewarding contributions that benefit society; holding government leaders to high standards of conduct; engaging with the world in ways that maximize opportunities for the many; and increasing opportunities for civilian national service.

“I wanted to write a book that would help shift the national mood from depression to optimism,” explains Kanter, who says she grew up “thinking that Americans have a special responsibility to improve the state of the world.” While her agenda is ambitious, Kanter notes, “The country can accomplish a great deal if enough of us get involved.”

Innovation is one of the traditional American strengths you talk about in the book, and you link it to “kaleidoscope thinking.” What is that?

If you look back in history, we’ve never been the lowest-cost producer of goods and services, but we have been smart producers. Entrepreneurs with a spirit of inventiveness and ingenuity built this country. New ideas involve a kind of thinking where you’re able to challenge orthodoxy and look at the world in a different light, from a different angle, and sometimes combine existing elements in a different way.

I like the image of a kaleidoscope because it involves shaking up your thinking. You see a pattern through a kaleidoscope, but it’s not fixed. Imagination and the ability to change the pattern have been main elements in the prosperity that Americans have enjoyed, and we need to value them highly. Science is central, and we must invest in it, not restrict it.

You call for more companies to practice “values-based capitalism.” Could you cite any examples?

There is a growing number of well-run, profitable companies that have values at the center of their management strategy. One outstanding example is IBM, which, in addition to making money, approaches innovation as a way to make the world a better place. For instance, its World Community Grid project came about when IBM had a breakthrough in grid computing, which involves tying many computers together to boost computing power. The company took that technology and, by setting up a nonprofit partnership, made it possible for organizations and individuals to donate unused computer time for use in AIDS and cancer research, which requires huge amounts of data-processing capacity.

What is the difference between the “no child left behind” approach to public education and the “no school left behind” approach that you favor?

At HBS and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the Public Education Leadership Project www.hbs.edu/pelp/ is focusing national attention on the fact that schools and school districts need better leadership and resources to rise to the challenge of educating our young people to compete in the 21st century. The current “no child left behind” approach is inadequate because it puts the burden on the child and the teacher, but it doesn’t do anything to improve the school’s environment and its ability to deliver services.

If you look at it from a business model, clearly we are not on a path to success in many schools. What business could survive if it didn’t have the resources to buy supplies and attract and retain quality employees? What retail store could motivate customers in a dingy, outmoded building where even daily weapons’ scans can’t guarantee their safety? There are complex, society-wide issues behind the problems in our education system, and it will require strong leadership and a smart investment of resources — not just setting standards — to turn them around.

You write extensively about the way we handle medical information. Why did that catch your attention?

Because it’s a problem that we could actually solve right now! A statistic from a Washington, D.C., hospital network highlights the seriousness of the situation: Sixty percent of physicians’ time at that hospital system was spent searching for information — not caring for patients, not even attending meetings, but searching for information. It doesn’t have to be that way. Federal Express and UPS drivers have handheld technology that gives them the information they need to work efficiently. Why are we so late in getting all physicians the same tools? While we’re waiting for the big reinvention of health-care finance and access, this simple innovation could help make things better today.

Could you talk about your idea of “citizen diplomats”?

In comparison with our massive defense spending, the U.S. Foreign Service budget is very small, yet obviously we need to strengthen our ties around the world. I believe that the actions and projects of U.S. philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and businesspeople who interact with foreign officials, company executives, and other international constituents can make a huge difference. I call them citizen diplomats, because by creating networks and introducing creative ideas that address endemic problems such as poor access to clean drinking water and electricity, substandard housing, and illiteracy, they are in a position to engender goodwill and influence how the world feels — and acts — toward Americans.

How does the “rule of thirds” apply to improving U.S. foreign relations?

In the business world, we have observed that when an organization is trying to introduce a new way of doing things, some people will like the idea from the beginning, some will be totally opposed, and a third group is somewhere in the middle. So a good rule for engaging with any group you’re trying to influence — whether it’s across the globe or the people in the next department — is to make sure that you retain your allies, do whatever you can to neutralize your adversaries, and most important, win over the big group that’s sitting on the fence.

— Deborah Blagg

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