First, A word about Bios

The convention of bios - much less, my own bio - has always confused me. For one, I don’t know why you’re here. Chances are you saw me speak or are about to; you worked with me or are considering it; you read something I wrote; or someone you know suggested that you and I meet. Two, I don’t know anything about you, your real interests, your biases, or the context of our burgeoning relationship.

This all means that I don’t know how to frame the elements of my career to best show you who I am or (gasp) win you over. I’ve tried out dozens of bios over the years - from bold, admittedly overstated, and glittering with testimonials to timid and self-deprecating, as if I were looking down at my shoes and mumbling. Of course, there isn’t a platonic ideal of my bio, one that accurately captures both the randomness and intentionality of my career and the grandeur and banality of my life.

But let’s assume for the sake of now-passed brevity that you’re here for one of two reasons:

  • to determine whether I’m credible or
  • to assess whether I can help you with whatever challenge you’re preparing to tackle.

The answers, I am confident, are probably and probably.

So I will list below some things I’ve done. As is the convention of bios, I will only list things I want you to know about. I won’t, despite the current fashion of celebrating failure, include those things that didn’t take off or did, took an immediate turn, and crashed. None of this will surprise you, as this is what you have come to expect of bios.

But I will undoubtedly frustrate you, as I won’t provide you with a handle for my career, with a job title or profession you can use to sort me. I’m not primarily a lecturer, entrepreneur, researcher, designer, or consultant, though I have certainly taught, started businesses, done research, designed and consulted. This is not because I refuse to be sorted - quite the opposite, in fact. I pine for being sorted. I want to be labeled, as being unlabeled carries a high social cost. It is because, while I am not one of those things, I am simultaneously all of those things and being everything at once is as confusing as being nothing at all.

At last, below you will find things I’ve done that I want you to know about. If you want to know about things that aren’t there or more about things that are, you’ll have to contact me, tell me about you, and give me some context. I look forward to it.


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I invented something that more and more people study and use. Specifically, a collaborator and I invented an original approach to innovation and change grounded in the science of human behavior - which is now taught in graduate programs and entrepreneurial education and soon will be taught to undergraduates and in design schools. I didn’t set out to invent anything; I just couldn’t find a practical methodology for solving social problems. Then I discovered robust bodies of research on the history of innovation and the science of social norms, so we built a methodology ourselves. Over the past two years, we have turned the methodology into graduate school curricula, course materials, training videos, and, most recently, a book. Now I’m working on applications of the methodology for specific industries and pondering a more definitive, sexier book. *


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I developed a sequence for solving all of the world’s problems. Wait, it's not as crazy as it sounds. As a Bretton Woods II Fellow at New America (2015 - ), I partnered with the OECD to survey economists, political scientists, and social scientists around the world to develop the right order for achieving all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Here’s a tease: the first three steps are "promote the rule of law and access to justice;" "eliminate the most extreme poverty;" and "ensure access to safe, effective and affordable health care, medicine, and vaccines." Now I’m looking for funding so the team can develop AI to crunch the latest data from around the world and update the sequence in real time. **


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I was the inaugural Innovator in Residence at the University of Southern California, housed in the world’s largest school of social work. No, nobody inside or outside the university understood exactly what the title meant, but it sounded cool and I managed to do some of the best work of my career. Between 2014 and 2018, my colleague and I designed, developed and launched the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation; the nation’s first graduate nursing program to emphasize both biomedical and social factors; a graduate fellowship in social innovation; and the social work field’s first academic roundtable on social innovation. I also contributed to work on child welfare, arts and social change, and the field’s national priorities.


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I co-founded UX for Good, the first effort to leverage experience design to solve social problems. I am not a designer, but I partnered with one in 2011 to launch the initiative and to lead ridiculously ambitious design projects in North America, Africa and Europe over the next three years in partnership with Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education, Aegis Trust and the GRAMMY Foundation. Currently, we’re compiling the lessons we learned on the road and toying with the idea of tackling another giant design challenge. ***


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The highest profile thing I’ve done so far was launch and run Insight Labs (2010 - 2014). It began innocently enough as a single pro bono strategy session for a local hospital, with a few hospital execs and a handful of my smartest friends. It evolved into a fully-staffed initiative of 45 projects with governments, institutions and NGOs - such as the U.S. Department of State, National Endowment for the Arts, Harvard Medical School, TED Conferences, and NASA - with 600-plus scientists, artists, government officials, academics, senior executives, and journalists. It was a remarkable success in almost every way; I just couldn’t figure out how to keep it funded.


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Everything I know about strategy - which, objectively, is a lot - I learned over 12 years in politics and public affairs. I spent the first seven of those years (1996 - 2003) in Chicago, where I helped manage political campaigns for federal, state, local and judicial office; and public affairs campaigns for governments, universities, hospitals, corporations and community organizations. It was like the WWE of power and influence. The last five years (2003 - 2008) were with my own firm and first company, Leitner Public Affairs, where my merry band focused on the gentler pursuit of social impact. To my unceasing surprise, a few initiatives we launched together are still running.


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I began my career in earnest as a newspaper reporter, covering government and politics for the now-defunct Copley Press. From 1990 to 1996, I authored more than 1,500 by-lined articles, which now strikes me as an absurdly large number. It is unlikely you ever read - or could recall - anything I ever wrote, as my specialties were the dull, mechanical drumbeat of daily governance and insider political wrangling. This was in the days before such things were spectator sports.


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I have been quite happily married to Angelynn Janetis Leitner for almost a quarter century. She and I live in the Chicago suburbs, where we raised our daughter, Gabrielle Leitner. Ms. Leitner the younger is entering the honors program at DePaul University, where she plans to major in Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Predictably and justifiably, her mother and I are very proud.


 

* My collaborator on the original approach to innovation and change is the remarkable Andrew Benedict-Nelson. Our current book is See Think Solve: A Simple Way to Tackle Tough Problems, available here.

** The original sequence for solving the world's problems can be found here.

*** My co-founder of UX for Good was the talented Jason Ulaszek. Our lessons from the road will soon be available here.