Shaping the Public Health Leadership Journey: A Q&A With T Benicio Gonzales and Shelley Lee
May 24, 2022 | ASTHO Staff
As part of our Diverse Executives Leading in Public Health (DELPH) program, ASTHO is spotlighting our scholars that make up this annual cohort of the program. These emerging leaders are going to be the next generation of public health. Today we sit down with two of our scholars: T Benicio Gonzales, director of the center for health equity at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness, and Shelley J. Lee, program monitor in the Office of Behavioral Health for the Louisiana Department of Health. We ask them about their leadership journey, why leadership development is important to their professional career, their experience in the DELPH program, and the value of diverse representation in the public health workforce.
Some answers have been edited for clarity.
What does it mean for you to be part of the DELPH program, which focuses on bringing diverse perspectives to public health?
T BENICIO GONZALES:
It means engaging with more folks who are in leadership roles, like those who are people of color and LGBT folks. As a transgender person, I've just been needing that kind of connection to other people. To be able to explore thoughts and ideas and share experiences that we've had has been a critical component of being able to broaden my network and connect with people who obviously have different experiences than I do, but who may also be able to really relate to me on some of the experiences that we're having in the public health field. And also, just to share our vision about where we want to go in this field, and especially, at this critical moment for the field of public health. I've been really grateful for that.
Why is it important to spend time developing your own leadership skills?
I think it's important because I feel like the role of a leader is not a stagnant one. It's ever evolving. I feel like there's always going to be new data, new trends, and new developments in the world of public health. And so, as a leader, it's important to recognize that and seek out ways in which you can learn and grow to stay aware of what's going on.
I feel like it's easy to fall into the status quo realm. So, it takes work. It takes initiative. To want to get better, to want to learn. And I feel like that's a key component of being a really good leader is staying aware of what's going on.
What has had the most significant impact on your leadership journey so far?
I really have been given opportunities across my lifespan. I would say even starting in high school, I was part of some groups, and I recognized there were adults at that time who were giving me an opportunity to be in certain leadership positions. They gave me the opportunity to learn about communicating what my ideas were. And I am grateful to them for providing me with that kind of opportunity at an early age. And I'm 40 now, so not as young as I once was, but I really realized how foundational those opportunities were for being able to grow in leadership. Then, over time, I took on new kinds of responsibilities and new decision-making powers within whatever organizations I had been in.
And finally, I will say, at this point now in my career as an adult, I try to tell anybody that will listen—because I feel grateful and I think it's important—there have, for me, been a number of women who have really given me a lot of opportunities, specifically black women who have given me a lot of opportunities. Being in a close working relationship with them and being shaped by their leadership has been critical for me in the role that I am a part of today and in trying to think differently about what leadership can be, especially in hierarchical organizations like government, to try to model something different. I am grateful to those who have given me opportunities to lead and who are also demonstrating to me new ways that I can embody leadership and feel comfortable about embodying a leadership style that may not always mimic what my organization or organizations like it prioritize.
What aspect of the DELPH program has been most beneficial to you?
We have had some great speakers. I think that those little nuggets of wisdom you get from the speakers, I don't know how you can put a value on that because it is like a wealth of information that they have just given to you. I found that extremely valuable. Another thing I would say is the fact that we are assigned a coach and we can schedule one-hour meetings with them and bring what we want to the table, and they hold us accountable. We set the tone, but they are there to hold us accountable. That is another extremely beneficial aspect of the program.
What is something you see yourself doing now that you did not do before joining the DELPH program?
I'll actually just reflect on a conversation I had this morning. As part of the DELPH program, we are having conversations with a coach, and the coach asked me for the specific issue that I've identified. She asked if I was committed to working on it and if I could find an accountability partner in my department with whom I could follow up. Even though I feel very comfortable with this colleague going to them and saying, “Okay, listen, this is a thing that I'm trying to work on in my own leadership. And are you willing to provide me with feedback for that?” I don't think that we're always encouraged to do that. And thinking about how important it is to demonstrate trust in our colleagues. They can provide feedback, not in a way that's about trying to criticize us or bring us down, but so that we can be more effective together as a team. That wasn't necessarily something that I thought that I would be doing going into the DELPH program. But it is a thing that I did this morning. I asked somebody to be an accountability partner for me on this thing I'm trying to work on in my own leadership journey. I think that's a good indicator of how practical and useful the program is for me right now.
What advice would you give to the next generation of public health leaders?
We apply a lot of stress on ourselves to always want to have the right answers or to know the answers, but just being able to recognize that the successes that you have are meaningful and are valuable, but it comes with growing pains. Recognize that in those growing pains, there's something to be learned. Once you figure out what the lesson is, it makes you that much more of a stronger, more dynamic leader within the world of public health.