What is effective leadership in public health? Public health leaders work around the clock and around the globe to build a healthier world grounded in the principles of health equity and justice. Their work is interdisciplinary — drawing from the best of biological science, biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health science, social and behavioral science, and health policy and management.
“We do not have to accept the status quo. We can do better on behalf of each other,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, director, Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, said.
To accomplish so much — from cutting-edge scientific research to trenchant policy analysis and successful public health advocacy — public health leaders must develop a range of core competencies and professional abilities. Explore the essential skills required for effective leadership in public health.
Roles of Public Health Leaders
Public health leaders are experts in the field who reliably provide vision and clear communication. Through their inspiring work ethic and dedication to excellence, public health leaders can effect real change at the national, state, and local levels.
Characteristics of Effective Leaders
An effective leader should have some core characteristics:
- Integrity: acting in alignment with one’s values; doing what one says one will do
- Decisiveness: making decisions based on evidence and strong reasoning
- The ability to balance hard truths with optimism: adopting a realistic perspective while maintaining hope for a better future
- Transparency (to the right extent): tactfully and wisely sharing information with those who need it rather than gatekeeping or obscuring information
- Encouragement of risk-taking: showing the courage to take a calculated chance on new programs and initiatives
- The ability to influence others: inspiring and motivating others from different backgrounds to share in the same mission
In the midst of a public health crisis, it is easy to see why these traits are crucial for a successful response.
What Public Health Leaders Do
What do public health leaders do? It depends on their specializations and roles, of course, but here are some examples of the many responsibilities of public health professionals that require strong leadership:
- Crisis communication. At the height of a disease outbreak or during an environmental disaster, the public needs clear direction about what specific actions to take to protect themselves. Public health leaders are experts at safeguarding communities during health emergencies.
- Emergency planning. Public health leaders are also expert planners, strategically coordinating federal, state, local, and community stakeholders’ efforts to create emergency plans in response to bioterrorism events, environmental catastrophes, disease outbreaks, and other threats to public health.
- Public health initiatives. The U.S. needs competent leaders to run public health initiatives at every level of government, from city health departments to federal health agencies. Government leaders implement public health policy, collect data, allocate resources, and deliver services to communities.
- Advocacy for vulnerable groups. Public health is about advancing the greater good. Sometimes that means shining a light on problems in our health delivery systems and speaking up for vulnerable groups. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many public health leaders emphasized how a global pandemic worsened health disparities in communities of color across the country.
- Technology and data use. Leaders in public health understand the importance of collecting, analyzing, interpreting, storing, and synthesizing data. To conduct research and advance evidence-based practices, public health leaders must leverage data platforms and emerging technologies.
What Is Leadership in Public Health?
To understand core competencies in public health leadership, it is useful to consider general leadership qualities and best practices that can be applied to a wide range of public health contexts.
Three core competencies related to leadership in public health are: vision, values, and influence.
Leadership Vision in Public Health
Leaders with vision can see beyond the status quo, imagining how changes to public health systems can make our communities healthier and more equitable.
Successful public health leaders have a strong knowledge base in their specialization area and also see the bigger picture. Leaders with a strong vision may understand some of the many shifting factors in public health today, such as:
- Technological advancements, especially the “information technology revolution” driven by big data and the digitization of health records
- Advancements in biomedical and management technologies
- Divergent health models (e.g., social determinants of health, the ecological model of health)
- Health communication systems (e.g., health web platforms, social media, telehealth)
A clear and compelling vision, including both critiques of current systems and positive proposals for change, can support collaborative planning and consensus building among diverse public health stakeholders.
Public Health Values
Public health leadership involves service and cooperation. Like other government and nonprofit leaders, public health leaders should see themselves as public servants — individuals who work for the public, in the public’s best interests. In their capacities as public servants, health officials typically abide by these values:
- Accuracy. Public health leaders should produce recommendations that are always evidence-based and grounded in best practices, according to public health expertise.
- Transparency. Public health leaders should empower the public with key information about issues related to public safety, health, and well-being. Leaders should clearly explain public policy, translate complex data into usable and easily understandable information, and shed light on topics that are of public health interest.
- Honesty. The public deserves to know how its leaders are working to protect their health. That means public health leaders should be honest and transparent about their practices.
- Responsiveness. During a public health crisis, time is precious. The public deserves accurate, timely information related to public health, so leaders must be prepared to respond.
- Accountability. Public health leaders serve the public, so they should be accountable to the public by conducting research according to the highest scientific ethical standards.
Moreover, public health leaders direct multidisciplinary teams of scientists, researchers, elected officials, public servants, and community members — so a collaborative approach to leadership is an absolute must. Effective public health leaders, therefore, also value:
- Teamwork. To coordinate and execute complex public health plans across communities, cities, states, and even entire nations, public health leaders must value and prioritize productive teamwork strategies.
- Networking. Public health leaders should recognize the importance of bringing new experts into the fold.
- Clear communication. Public health leaders need to be expert communicators, adeptly able to interpret and convey complex ideas to diverse stakeholders with various levels of expertise — from professionals with advanced degrees in epidemiology to community workers who are just learning about public health programs for the first time.
- Information management. Public health leaders must find ways to store, catalog, and quickly reference correct, up-to-date information. Given the sheer amount of data that is available through big data tools today, public health leaders should be on the cutting edge of information management.
Public Health Influence
Ultimately, public health leaders need to be effective — and to be effective, leaders must wield influence over institutions that affect people’s health.
For public health to be even more influential as a field, its leaders must embrace public health work’s interdisciplinarity. What does that mean?
Public health initiatives often require many different groups to come together and work in tandem to get a job done. For example, disease preparedness efforts require a coordinated response from healthcare institutions, social service organizations, state health departments, transportation services, and many other groups.
Sometimes such efforts require global coordination across agencies and organizations. For instance, the national COVID-19 pandemic response drew on international networks of public health organizations, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to individual nations’ public health departments and private sector groups — all working together to curb the pandemic.
Public health requires inter-organizational coordination, too. For example, public health policy analysts may need to work with biostatisticians to apply insights from predictive modeling to the creation of actionable policy recommendations. Public health leaders therefore must become skilled at building relationships across teams and departments, earning trust, and creating open lines of communication along the way.
Why Leadership Is Important in Public Health
Leadership is important for public health initiatives to succeed. Effective leaders can streamline public health services, improving access to key public health information and services. Without leadership, however, public health initiatives fall flat.
Public Health Leadership Successes
When public health leaders work together, they can achieve amazing results. Notably, the World Health Organization (WHO) — a specialized United Nations agency that oversees international public health — has successfully:
- Eradicated smallpox in 1980, with no naturally occurring cases emerging since.
- Nearly eradicated polio through vaccines.
- Empowered the development of other vaccines for deadly viruses including Ebola.
When public health leaders do their jobs well, they can prevent disease outbreaks and promote health across communities — work that sometimes appears invisible when potential crises are averted.
Public Health Leadership Organizations
At a national level, the U.S. has created specific government agencies that, when led well, can effect sweeping public health changes that promote health equity and justice. Key public health agencies in the U.S. include:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which includes the Bureau of Health Professions (BHPr)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)
Federal agencies, including those listed above, can aid public health leadership in several ways. These include supporting:
- Technological development
- Predictive and prescriptive modeling
- Continuing education
- Student and early professional development
- Public health educator development
- Public health academic program development
For instance, the BHPr in particular offers several programs specific to leadership development in public health:
- Public health traineeships that train professionals in critical public health professions
- Public health special projects that create academic-community partnerships for public health curriculum revisions
- Preventive medicine residencies that support and expand residency training programs
- Health administration traineeships to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups in the health administration field
Public Health Leadership Barriers to Success
Sometimes the investment in public health resources can dwindle during relatively calm and safe periods. This can lead to preventable public health crises due to understaffing, as well as atrophied connections between public health agencies and organizations.
Barriers to success in public health include:
- Failures to articulate and take action on a clear public health mission
- Inadequate resources to carry out essential public health activities, including developing policy, assessing current public health metrics, and delivering services
- Making decisions without required data
- Unequal distribution of public health services and resources
- Leadership attrition and turnover, leading to a lack of continuity in public health leadership
- Inadequate partnerships with clinical or medical professionals, public servants, and community representatives
- Funding inadequacies and lack of financial support
- Communication barriers between different levels of government
Public Health Leadership Skills
Leadership in public health requires many skills in complex environments. Globalization, economic crises, international tensions, and political strife can all affect public health functions and the resources available for dealing with existing and emerging health issues.
Skills to Lead Complex Public Health Initiatives
Four necessary public health leadership components are:
- Identifying and gaining support for specific health issues
- Securing (or allocating) funds to accomplish specific public health aims
- Gaining support for implementing specific actions toward public health goals
- Supporting the ongoing development of public health knowledge and data
Public health leadership skills overlap. For example, securing funding for a public health educator may mean drafting a compelling, well-researched grant proposal. This can involve similar evidence-based research a health policy analyst may conduct when creating a proposal for equitable funds allocation.
In all of these complex public health initiatives, leaders must demonstrate the skills of:
- Excellent communication: fluency in technical and scientific communication as well as clear, concise communication with the general public (which includes, especially, communication with nonexperts)
- Critical thinking: the ability to synthesize and draw out public health data’s implications
- Ethical decision-making: the commitment to using public health leadership power to serve society by promoting the common good
Skills to Form Alliances and Foster Cooperation in Public Health
Public health leaders must form alliances with many different stakeholders — communicating clearly and effectively, synthesizing information, and making tough decisions based on evidence and grounded in the ethical principles of responsibility, equity, and justice.
Today’s public health leaders must support inclusion, collaboration, and empowerment:
- Inclusion means creating and championing policies, proposals, and programs that support people from all backgrounds, including people who have been and continue to be affected by racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression that have both direct and indirect effects on an individual’s health and well-being.
- Collaboration means bringing together stakeholders with different perspectives, values, resources, and responsibilities to contribute to decision-making together.
- Empowerment means sharing resources, including vital public health information so that individuals and communities can make informed decisions to promote and maintain their own health and safety.
Skills to Build Critical Public Health Infrastructure
To assure a consistently competent public health workforce, public health leaders need to invest in public health infrastructure. This means thinking about and creating long-term plans for training future public health leaders. It also requires creating leadership support systems so public health organizations can sustain leadership changes over time.
Gain Critical Leadership Skills for a Career in Public Health
In a rapidly changing world, the public needs competent leaders to drive equitable, accessible public health initiatives. Society demands strong leadership in public health to create inclusive, effective health systems that serve everyone.
Are you passionate about promoting equity and inclusion in public health? A DrPH in Leadership, Advocacy, and Equity program can equip future public health leaders with the skills and connections they need to amplify their voices and spearhead true change in their communities.
Through a combination of classroom engagement in co-curricular experiences, a DrPH program focused on leadership, advocacy, and equity can teach professionals of all backgrounds how to apply these principles in public health. Discover how the program can help you make a difference in public health.