Public Health Leadership

Leadership is the process through which an individual tries to influence another individual or a group of individuals to accomplish a goal. Leadership is valued in our culture, especially when it helps to achieve goals that are beneficial to the population, such as the enactment of effective preventive health policies. An individual with leadership qualities can also improve an organization and the individuals in it, whether it be a teacher who works to get better teaching materials and afterschool programs or an employee who develops new ideas and products and influences others to invest in them.

Leadership can be exhibited in a variety of ways and circumstances. Mothers and fathers show leadership in raising their children with good values and encouraging them to develop to their potential. Teachers show it in inspiring students to learn and to develop their intellectual capacity. Health care workers can be leaders and develop services that meet the needs of the communities they serve, or work in collaboration with other organizations to create cost-effective, prevention-oriented programs and services.

Many studies have been done and many books and articles have been published on this subject. Through this work a consistent set of leadership attributes has emerged. An effective leader does most, if not all, of the following:

  • Challenge the Process—search out challenging opportunities, take risks, and learn from mistakes.
  • Inspire others to come together and agree on a future direction or goal—create a shared vision by thinking about the future, having a strong positive vision, and encouraging others to participate.
  • Help others to act—help others to work together, to cooperate and collaborate by developing shared goals and building trust, and help to make others stronger by encouraging them to develop their skills and talents.
  • Set an example—behave in ways that are consistent with professed values and help others to achieve small gains that keep them motivated, especially when a goal will not be achieved quickly.
  • Encourage others—recognize each individual’s contributions to the success of a project.

Another way of defining leadership is to acknowledge what people value in individuals that are recognized as leaders. Most people can think of individuals they consider to be leaders. Research conducted in the 1980s by James Kouzes and Barry Posner found that a majority of people admire, and willingly follow, people who are honest, forward- looking, inspiring, and competent.

An individual who would like to develop leadership skills can profit from the knowledge that leadership is not just a set of exceptional skills and attributes possessed by only a few very special people. Rather, leadership is a process and a set of skills that can be learned.


  1. Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (1995). The Leadership Challenge, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Pointer, D. D., and Sanchez, J. P. (1993). “Leadership: A Framework for Thinking and Acting.” In Health Care Management: A Text in Organization Theory and Behavior, 3rd edition. eds. S. Shortell and A. Kaluzny. New York: Wiley.
Council on Education for Public Health
Public Health Nursing