Leadership is a powerful lever for change in global health.
Every year, millions of people suffer and die from preventable illnesses and injuries. During the pandemic, gaps in health systems exacerbated these inequities.
Who leaders are and how they lead is a matter of life-and-death for the communities they serve.
We need leaders with a range of skill sets and perspectives:
We need leaders with humility, empathy, flexibility, and adaptiveness.
We need proximate leaders with lived experience with inequities and the ability to collaborate across borders and boundaries.
We need leaders at all levels and aspects of health systems working together in relentless pursuit of health equity.
These kinds of leaders aren’t born. They’re developed intentionally through sustained support, training, mentorship, and access to resources and opportunities.
Systems leaders must be intentionally developed at every level of their careers through skill building, mentorship, reflection, and being part of a collaborative network. In global health, these kinds of intensive, sustained leadership development opportunities are few and far between. Investment in talent comprises a small percentage of the sector’s funding.
Global health continues to have a serious representation problem, which hinders improved health outcomes. To date, the response to a growing awareness of this lack of diversity has focused on hiring and retaining more diverse talent and investing more in women-led and BIPOC-led organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Both are critical interventions, but they’re not enough to create a sea change because they focus disproportionately on top leadership.
The missing link is investing in the leadership development of women and BIPOC leaders over the long term, starting during their early careers and continuing as they rise through the ranks. Managing funds, building and leading strong teams, and making strategic decisions are key to driving change. While many young professionals have bold visions, a deep understanding of their communities, lived experience with inequities, and strong technical expertise, their ability to make a meaningful impact hinges on intentional development of these skills.
In the wake of COVID-19, a decade of progress in global health and development may be reversed. In global health, leaders at all levels face serious risk of burnout following a year of trauma and exhaustion that spanned the personal and the professional realms. The risks are even higher for women and BIPOC leaders, given the added pressures and stress that white supremacy and patriarchy inflicts on them.
Robust leadership development opportunities that provide access to networks, resources, and mentorship are strong antidotes. Targeted investments can shore up their adaptability, resilience, and other traits required to lead and manage through the ongoing crisis and recovery period. Research from the private sector underscores this. A MIT Sloan study, for example, found that “To become more resilient in the face of sudden change...it was just as important to improve the way people work and to update their skills as it was to introduce new technologies.”
In highlighting deep inequities, the pandemic has made systems change a common refrain. Yet systems don’t have agency — people do. An investment in the leaders who design and shape systems is an investment in systems change, which is by nature complex, long-term work.
Investing in global health leaders can accelerate systems change over time by ensuring implementers across organizations, not just top leadership, can engage through a systems lens. As a 2016 SSIR piece on systems change posits: “In addition to developing a systems mindset, it is important to strengthen people’s self-awareness and relationships, create space for dialogue and inquiry, ensure honest and transparent communication, and develop a shared understanding and practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This requires dedicating resources to building authentic leaders and systems thinkers who can hone and practice these skills throughout their careers.
Global Health Now: This article outlines the immense financial and human costs of poor leadership in global health and the power of excellent leadership to ensure “long-term sustainable change to the health of numerous populations [because] they are able to work cohesively and respectfully with the communities they serve, to influence and empower others in their health vision and to be able to confidently navigate fluid political and organizational contexts.”
The Lancet: This commentary illustrates how the loss of thousands of lives to Ebola in West Africa in 2014 was the result of a global health leadership failure.
Devex: This op-ed by Skoll Foundation principals underscores the need for funders to shift their impact evaluation approaches given the nonlinear nature of systems change: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts…the collaboration and influence that resist quantification matter too.”
Bridgespan: This January 2021 report highlights how funders looking to advancing systems change must shift. The authors advocate for funders to invest in organizations and coalitions serving as “systems orchestrators” who do the critical, often under-recognized work of unleashing the power of collective leadership.
SSIR: This piece illustrates how “systems orchestrators” have and must continue to play two key roles in tackling the complex, interconnected challenges we currently face: 1) foster cooperation, information-sharing, joint decision-making, and systemic reform through partnerships and 2) seek out people or groups who have the skills, background, knowledge, and willingness to fill urgent needs, but who have been stymied by systemic inertia, cultural differences, or economic inequities.
SSIR: This piece makes a compelling case for the need to develop leaders who enact an outsized impact on long-standing social inequities through a systems approach — building relationships based on deep listening and working through networks of trust and collaboration.
SSIR: A piece highlighting the potential for amplifying impact by investing in talent within the nonprofit sector.
Chronicle of Philanthropy: “In an unusual move, five of America’s wealthiest foundations have joined forces to do more to help grantees pay for rent, decent wages, technology, and other overhead.”
This initiative, of which GHC is a collaborator, is advancing a new approach focused on developing proximate leadership for better outcomes in global development.