The Pillars of Future Public Health Leadership

May 09, 2023 | Avia Mason

A wooden pawn stands on a chessboard in front of a small mirror, instead of the pawn's reflection, we see a queenDespite the large volume of leadership books written each year, there remains an abstruseness around the concept of leadership. While some mistakenly reserve the role of leadership for the most senior ranking person within an organization, I beg to differ. Leadership isn’t a position; it is a process. It includes an observable, understandable, learnable set of skills and practices available to everyone, no matter where they sit in an organization.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities became aware of the vital role public health plays in their daily lives. During the pandemic, we learned the critical importance of leadership. While there were national debates regarding infringement on personal freedoms, the science and timeline of vaccine development, economic impacts of business closures, and declining public trust of the government, the greatest need we saw was for effective leadership. Without effective leadership, it didn’t matter how vaccines were manufactured or equitably distributed. There was a need for clear direction, empathy, and execution. Many organizations pay lip service to the concept of leadership without intentionally investing in skill development or nurturing leadership opportunities within their teams.

As we prepare for a post-COVID era, public health will remain in the spotlight. We have witnessed history with the largest federal investment in governmental public health of all time. The role of public health leadership is more important now than ever before. What we do from this point forward will set the stage for what is possible for public health as a field, and it is imperative that we seize these opportunities to build and sustain sound infrastructure, empower diverse leaders, and ensure a qualified workforce that is positioned to carry us not only through the next crisis, but into the next decade.

I believe there are three pillars for public health leadership of the future:

  • Care for yourself.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Convert from transactions to transformation.

Care for Yourself

You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are going to care for your staff, organization, or community, you must first ensure you are caring for and nurturing yourself. While burning the candle at both ends—being the first to arrive, last to leave, and always accessible—is commonplace (and some would argue noble), it is not sustainable. In a society where we are always connected through emails, texts, and tweets, leaders must learn how to effectively manage their time and energy to ensure we adequately address our basic needs of food, sleep, and exercise.

It is essential for you to personally ensure you are equipped to stay the course and meet important demands. It is equally imperative that you model the way forward for those around you. Your staff are watching, whether you know it or not. Other leaders are also watching. If you don’t take vacation days or ever sign off, team members will never feel they are allowed to do so because they don’t see you doing it—no matter how much you encourage them.

Communicate Effectively

Successful leaders understand the role communication plays in their work. While there is no singular approach, we know that the best laid plans and most exquisite organizational strategies will fail if not communicated effectively by leadership. This includes communicating in every direction: up, down, across, and out. Research in this area tells us that no matter how much you previously communicated, in times of high stress, change, or crisis, leaders need to increase both their cadence and methods for communication.

Transparency is core to effective communication. Leaders need to be timely by sharing exactly what they know when they know it. They must be confident in saying, “This is what I know now. When I know more, I will provide additional details.” Consistently sharing your message in multiple formats—whether that is via email, agency memos, during staff meetings, or individual one-on-ones—will ensure your message is received.

To support transparency and trust, always share public information with your internal teams first. They need to hear information directly from you before it hits the news cycle. Even when you are busy, posture yourself to be receptive to feedback. Create opportunities to gather input and allow for questions to ensure that what you are trying to convey is what is being received.

Convert from Transactions to Transformation

Embrace transformation and work to sustain it. Many of you have heard of the term, “getting on the balcony” to help gain perspective. As a leader, it is essential that you be forward-thinking, considering how the future may unfold, instead of spending all your time focused on the details of what is transpiring in the moment.

Delegating responsibility allows leaders to spend more time looking for patterns, documenting gaps, charting future directions, and seeking new opportunities across systems. Unfortunately, when leaders remain caught up in the transactional day-to-day details, their teams will not be prepared for what is to come.

Great leaders are defined less by enduring traits and more by their ability to recognize and adapt to the opportunities created by a particular moment. Therefore, you should aim to adopt agile methods to address various opportunities and new partnerships when they present themselves.

To do this, leaders must champion agility in all initiatives they touch and influence to allow innovation throughout the team. Reward those who are creative and explore alternative methods for efficiency. This will require letting go of some tradition, being open to missteps, and trying things others haven’t.

Leadership comes with great responsibility. Without self-reflection and intentionality, leaders can inadvertently become overly responsible—that is, taking ownership of others’ tasks, emotions, problems, and mistakes. As we prepare for the next public health emergency, make sure you position yourself to lead more effectively by following the three C’s: care for yourself, communicate effectively, and convert most of your time from transactions to transformations.

If you do this, you will not only improve your leadership but empower others to grow in the process—and that is how we develop the public health leaders of the future!