Leadership and management and authority and such

I’m taking a course in “strategic leadership” this term, and I am very much looking forward to the rest of it. It’s a small class, but I can see that it is going to be challenging and entertaining, and, best of all, I’m going to learn a lot from it. The two course instructors have decades of experience in public health communications and in leading public health efforts here and abroad. Most of the students in the class also have a lot of experience in international settings. A couple of us don’t, but we more than make up for it with our experiences in “real life” situations of public health. (Some would kill to have been at the state health department as influenza surveillance coordinators during an influenza pandemic.)

One of the discussions we had in the first class was about what makes a good leader. We agreed that a leader has to have integrity and not be duplicitous. (Integrity is the opposite of duplicity, by the way.) A leader has to have ideas and ways of making the impossible possible. For example, twenty years ago, no one would have imagined that an iPhone would do all the things that it does. We saw people with cellphones, yes, but those cellphones were just phones. Now, we have very powerful mini-computers in our pockets. Likewise, at the end of World War II, no one in France would have imagined that today, in 2013, they would have open borders and a common currency with Germany.

Using that last example, the professor told us that peace between India and Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine, is very much possible, even if it doesn’t seem like it will come true right now — and hasn’t for the last 50+ years in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians. Those countries and peoples need leaders with the vision and the ability to plan for peace between them. That is, something that seems far-fetched and impossible right now is pretty much possible if a leader, or leaders, comes about and takes care of the situation.

Of course, no good discussion on leadership gets by without discussing the age-old question of whether a leader is born or made. Personally, I think that it’s a combination of both. You may be born with the brain chemistry that will allow you to reason things better, or into a family that has the resources to foster your leadership skills. On the other hand, you need someone to help you polish those skills and to be put in situations where you learn from your mistakes at leadership and become better for them.

We also talked about different “brands” of leaders. There are the world-renowned leaders who get accolades for their work, and then there are the unkown, behind-the-scenes leaders who are perfectly happy now being known the world over. And then there are the people who are leaders but have zero authority and the people in power who absolutely suck at being leaders. I’ve had a few of the latter in some of the jobs I’ve had over the years. The manager/supervisor/boss has the authority to tell me what to do but doesn’t really have a vision or the leadership to lead me (and the rest of those under him) toward that vision. On the other hand, I’ve had good leaders as supervisiors, but they themselves were overruled by someone with authority and zero skills as leaders.

Over the course of the term, we’ll be talking about what leadership skills are needed and how those skills need to be implemented as it relates to development of health systems in developing countries. Lord knows there’s a huge need for more than just healthcare in too many countries around the world. Heck, we need an effective leader (or group of leaders) here in the United States in order to get our public health and healthcare systems in order. I mean, just look at the Affordable Care Act. My, goodness, can the President grow a pair and tell the Tea Party to quit it with the obstructionism?

He probably won’t. Midterm elections are coming.

Any leadership skills I have I learned from my mother and father initially and then from my teachers and peers. Mom and dad have the ability to rally people to their cause and organize very well. I think dad got his ability to move his friends and siblings toward a project from my grandfather, the big political activist. Whenever something needs done, dad’s friends go to him for his ingenuity. He can solve puzzles with the best of them. I can solve puzzles, too, though not with the best. Then there’s my mom. There are stories of her giving rousing speeches in school and always being sought after for counsel by her friends and peers. As an adult, she bucked the trend of the youngest daughter staying home and taking care of the mother and went to law school. She went from a small town to a big city, had a kid at 18, and overcame all sorts of challenges, all the while helping a ton of people along the way.

Then there are the teachers and mentors that have taken it upon themselves to teach me a few things about life and about my work as a professional. There was Dr. Ricardo Ortiz, director of the medical school in Juarez and a pioneer in genetics. It was at his lab and under the tutelage of Daniel Chavez that I learned the basics of laboratory medicine. In high school, Mr. Cunningham taught me about math and also counseled me when life got rough. So did Mr. Linkin and others. There was no short supply of mentors and parental figures who saw in me what I didn’t see then… And what I have a hard time seeing sometimes. As an adult and in my first job, it was Ray Minnick who made sure that I stayed focused on getting my master of public health and that I showcased what I know to the leadership at the hospital.

In short, those mentors taught me that there is no such thing as impossible as long as I focus and keep my eye on the prize. This is going to come incredibly handy as I work through the DrPH studies and then once I get that degree and move out into the world of public health. I wonder how Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and any other successful leader kept their eyes on the prize? How did they not become derailed by the petty problems that come with being a human? I’d love to learn the answer to that. And I hope I will in the next few weeks.

(So why the picture of Ernest Hemingway as the featured image? Because he is one of those people who were bigger than life, totally let extraneous stuff seep into his life, and still managed to become a legend, though that was not his intent.)

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen