Emerging Leaders in Public Health: Leaders Develop in Action

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Nov 2023

Critical success factors of good leadership development models emerged from an evaluation of the Emerging Leaders in Public Health program at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Many Local Public Health agency leaders have great ideas, skill and the capacity to grow. Good leadership development models amplify those characteristics, then fuel them with additional resources. We share details of one such model, the Emerging Leaders in Public Health program, in the latest issue of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

Our experience and evaluation findings suggest that leader growth is maximized when it is integrated with organizational change.

The Emerging Leaders in Public Health program at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health developed 104 local public health agency leaders from across the country, two “co-leads” from each of 52 jurisdictions. Many of the agencies we worked with were large or mid-sized, some were small and rural. Our leaders were a mix of seasoned veterans and relatively new “emerging” leaders looking for opportunities to shine.

The Kresge Foundation funded UNC to be the National Program Office and provided Resource Grants to the fifty funded agencies.

A few critical success factors emerged from our evaluation.

  • Leadership grows in action. In our model, individual leader development was tightly linked to the aspirations of leaders for their agencies and communities. Each co-lead pair pitched an agency transformation that was built around the question “What’s your new role?”
  • Effective leaders are coachable and have a coach! Our co-leads had ample access to development programming and coaching, including peer coaching in

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    the form of Action Learning Sets—because leadership grows in action, learning and reflection.

  • Resources are essential. To allow the learning-action-reflection cycle work, leaders need time and resources. The Kresge Foundation funded multi-year Resource Grants for each agency to make agency transformations thinkable, doable and sustainable.

What are the agency transformations? Each one is unique and local, in keeping with good public health principles. Most involve new partners and new ways of collaborating. The “New Roles” for our agencies fall into one or more likely both of two big categories:

“Chief Health Strategist” roles, to create “upstream” capacity, as described in a series of articles on Public Health 3.0. Examples include transforming around data and informatics, or around emerging topics (mental health, social justice). No one uses the term “chief health strategist” in public, but one agency is aiming for “Chamber of Health.”

Health Equity roles, to expand reach, activate voices of lived experience, develop health equity capacity within and without, and connect with new communities. A number of agencies involved community health workers in their transformations.

We have two articles in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice this month, one describing the overall model, and the second focusing on individual leadership development results. Interested? Read on, and reach out to us for more.

Steve Orton is a Senior Fellow for Public Health Leadership at the North Carolina Institute of Public Health at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. He has over twenty years of experience as a coach, facilitator and designer of leadership and workforce development programs that have served local, state and national needs for leadership development and organizational change.  

Anna Schenck is the Director of the Public Health Leadership Program at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. For the past 14 years, she has led academic programs focused on leadership and public health practice. Prior to joining UNC, she had 20 years public health practice experience, first at a local health department and then with non-profit organization.

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