October 15, 2017

Carolyn Halpern, PhD
Professor and chair, Maternal and Child Health

Q: What do you tell your students about how to prepare to be leaders in public health?

A: There are multiple ways to prepare, both structured and unstructured. One important way is to learn from the effective leaders you admire. What qualities do these leaders have that enhance their leadership? How do they interact with others to inspire enthusiasm and commitment? How can you cultivate those strengths?

One way to cultivate leadership skills is by identifying a mentor who embodies those qualities. Another is to take advantage of other available resources. Sign up for workshops, classes and other activities that will help you enhance your leadership skills. Volunteer for opportunities that allow you to practice your leadership skills. As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you get. We learn from constructive feedback and mistakes, and move on to better performance the next time.

Q: How has your approach to leadership changed since you became a chair at the Gillings School?

A: I don’t know that my approach has changed much. I lead in much the same way that I mentor – i.e., I practice what I preach and try to serve as a good role model. I listen more than I talk, and work to build consensus and a supportive culture. I reflect on my efforts and try to improve weaknesses. I strive to be forward-thinking and to anticipate opportunities and potential pitfalls.

However, one important aspect of my leadership style has developed since I became chair. I am more aware of and sensitive to balancing the best interests of an individual faculty member, staff member or student, with the best interests of the department and the School. Sometimes, this involves difficult choices.

Q: What characteristics are most important in public health leaders today?

A: I’ll start with these:

  • Be willing to “keep your ear to the ground” to anticipate change and optimize it.
  • Be willing and able to create and support successful interdisciplinary teams that reflect the diversity of the population.
  • Manage conflict successfully.
  • Understand cultural differences and use differences to build more effective teams and work contexts.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Keep learning and keep up with the field.
  • Practice ethical behavior and demand the same of other team members.
  • Be willing and able to train and mentor the future workforce and leaders.

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