Leading Public Health For a Healthier World

Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Willing is not enough; we must do. —Goethe

Racism. Migration. Antibiotic resistance. Climate Change. Today’s students and recent graduates of public health schools will face these and other challenges throughout their careers. Will we resolve them? The belief that the world is inexorably getting better, that the arc of history is bending towards justice, is being questioned. Many people are gripped in a malaise of apathy. To overcome these obstacles, it is essential that public health practitioners be equipped with the right skills. But that begs the question - what do we need to know?

As students and alumni of Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) programs, we believe we need the leadership abilities to enable large-scale changes, in addition to the technical expertise to design and study programs and policies. Only conducting research is not enough. We must be able to enact change in real-world environments with competing stakeholders and scarce resources. Leadership is the key to disrupt the status quo and enable constructive change. We need a variety of skills, such as communication, coalition building, and strategic management.

To a historian of public health, this idea is not surprising. Consider an example: the story of the eradication of scurvy in the British Royal Navy. In 1753, Naval Surgeon James Lind published a little book called the ‘Treatise of Scurvy’ based on his research, which also happened to be one of the first ever clinical trials. The book, which documented the link between citrus consumption and scurvy, was read by intellectuals but did not lead to any major changes  in policies, or behaviors. Lind, content with his publication, told friends he had “conquered” the disease and lived the rest of his life as a university professor. However, it took 42 years after his publication for the British Royal Navy to translate his recommendations into citrus fruit distribution for sailors.

The story of how the Royal Navy eradicated scurvy is just one example of the importance of leadership. The common thread in many stories from public health, like urban water fluoridation, decreasing cigarette smoking, and access to treatment for AIDS, is that research alone was insufficient to save lives. Success involved solving more problems than the initial research or technical breakthroughs to get positive change implemented.

Today’s challenges are different than many in the past. We are now facing ‘‘wicked problems,’ a term first coined over 50 years ago by C. West Churchman. Churchman defines wicked problems as ill-formulated, full of ambiguous, undefined information that contain stakeholders with conflicting values, and where the the repercussions within the larger environment are confusing.There are no technical solutions to wicked problems - no sophisticated statistical model or management framework can easily solve them. Instead, we need answers to other questions: How do we scale up solutions? How do we disseminate information? How do we enable change?

Public health schools are changing curriculum to help students answer these questions. Management and leadership courses are being added. Also, there is growing interest in DrPH and other practitioner-focused doctorates, where graduates are trained to be future leaders in their specific field. However, the benefits of these ‘soft skills’ and value of leadership training is often minimized or misunderstood.

We want to call attention to the central role of leadership in public health and offer room to discuss its dimensions and craft. We offer this website as a forum for current and future public health leaders to discuss what needs to be changed, how we hope to do it, and share skills we will need. There is no similar venue for students and young leaders that we know of.

The site will include:

  • Personal stories of best (and worst) leadership practices

  • The questions that young leaders are grappling with

  • Interviews with current leaders to learn from them

  • Editors’ Picks of relevant events and articles from around the web

If you are interested in writing for us, please contact us here. Learning is both ways- by those writing about their experiences and by those reading.

Thank you,

LeadingPublicHealth.org Editorial Team

Eric Coles, MPA, Harvard DrPH Candidate

Dominique Rouleau, MS, Harvard DrPH Candidate

Mary M. Wesley, DrPH, MPH, Harvard DrPH Alumna

Hiwote Solomon, MPH, Boston University DrPH Candidate