Talents for Public Health Leadership

By Professor Darren Shickle, Professor of Public Health at University of Leeds
Darren Shickle is Professor in Public Health and Head of the Academic Unit of Public Health in the Leeds Institute of Health Sciences. He is also an Honorary Consultant within Public Health England. Current projects include involvement in trailblazer application for public health apprenticeships.

A few years ago I collaborated in a project between Universities of Leeds, Wisconsin and Alberta. We were interested in which paradigm was needed for public health in the 21st Century. We realised that was not any particular paradigm that was important but having the right leaders to implement it. In particular, we concluded that what key to the success of the public health agenda were what Jim Collins described as Level 5 leaders needed for organisations to change from “Good to Great”. In response to this we wanted to identify Level 5 leaders for public health. We therefore asked public health professionals to nominate the leaders they admired most, people we came to describe as superheroes for public health. The findings of the research were published in: Day M, Shickle D, Smith K, Zakariasen K, Moskol J, Oliver T. Training public health superheroes: Five talents for public health leadership. Journal of Public Health 2014 26(4): 552-561 doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdu004.

Analysing the interviews we identified 5 talents for public health that these superheroes tended to have in common:

Mentoring-nurturing: Public health superheroes were characterized by their exceptional commitment to professional welfare, particularly in the form of ‘mentoring-nurturing’ colleagues and junior staff to be advocates for public health. This was achieved through articulating their strong sense of public health shared values, actively encouraging others to join the profession. Through mentoring and nurturing, public health superheroes created environments where individuals felt a pride to be practicing public health and as a means of building and fostering professional networks.

Shaping-organizing: Public health superheroes demonstrated exceptional skills in shaping and organizing the agenda for the benefit of the public health cause. Methods used to shape and organize included exceptional meeting administration, expert note taking, and the ability to use administrative techniques to influence internal agendas and external stakeholders. However, there was more to this than just making sure that things ran smoothly. Public health superheroes used their shaping-organizing talents to develop other talents, such as their professional networks. The ability to use shaping-organizing techniques to implement their overall vision was also exceptional.

Networking-connecting: The ‘networking-connecting’ talent was used to maintain and develop links and relationships, between organizations and individuals at all levels. This included creating close links with a wide range of agencies and stakeholders, in particular the media. The cultivation of long-term relationships in all of these settings was important for effective public health practice, particularly where public health advice went against ‘the status quo’.

Knowing-interpreting: Public health superheroes demonstrated exceptional abilities in ‘knowing-interpreting’ information to further the public health cause and enable others to act. There was an important distinction between the local- and national-level superheroes in this context; national-level leaders demonstrated depth of knowledge in a specific topic area or field, whereas local leaders demonstrated breadth across a wide range of public health areas. Crucially, knowing-interpreting talents were used to exert authority and as a mechanism to develop the power and authority necessary in a range of different settings.

Advocating-impacting: All superheroes excelled in some form or method of advocating-impacting. Some excelled via writing for journals and opinion pieces, others via public speaking or media interviews, although not all superheroes were confident or polished communicators. A common theme across all the superheroes was that credibility was the key to being effective and that this was achieved predominantly through the ‘work done on the ground’. Public health superheroes deemed successful by interviewees at advocating-impacting developed strong networks, within and across different organizational environments, to support any controversial advice.

Not all the superheroes exhibited all of the talents to the same depth, and indeed some had weaknesses. The tendency within management training courses is to focus on leadership weaknesses and to address the gaps. However, the superheroes utilised their own personal strengths and instead built a team around them who had strengths in these other areas.

Public health training, even for public health specialists, tends to be ad hoc. For practitioners, resources and opportunities for professional development are even sparser, especially at a time of austerity and cut backs in training budgets.

Much of the training for both practitioners and specialists tends to be opportunistic and on the job. Thus training quality may depend on the ‘quality’ of the trainers and their time and skills to deliver training. There also tends to be more emphasis on training earlier in a role, with an expectation that people are more self-sufficient once they have been in a job for a while.

While not everyone will be a public health superhero, we can all aspire to be one, and develop our talents accordingly. Some aspects of the talents will require formal training e.g. in terms of ‘knowing-interpreting’. However, other aspects are part of good public health practice, for example by properly preparing for meetings as part of ‘shaping-organising’. If attending a conference, there are also basic things that can be done to enhance ‘networking-connecting’. For example:

  • Have business cards with you to give out to people you want to network with;
  • If you have access to a participant or speaker list in advance, identify people that you may want to speak with;
  • If there is a question session after a lecture that you want to connect with, then don’t be afraid to ask a question, as this makes it easier to approach the speaker afterwards;
  • Prepare and practice ‘3 minute elevator pitch’ in which you can get across who you are, key messages in a succulent and clear way.