October 15, 2017


Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD
Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of nutrition and medicine
Chair, Nutrition


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

A: I ask my students to think about why we do what we do. Being a public health leader requires being motivated by something you value, something that inspires you to make an impact.

I focus on questions such as, What is your mission? What do you want to accomplish? How are you going to provide leadership to have a direct impact on whatever that goal is? Once students do that, they can begin to think about the present opportunities that will guide them toward their goals. It’s important to experience and practice leadership, early and often. Sometimes, you learn great skills and good ways to handle things, and other times, you may learn how not to handle things. All those lessons are valuable. Just get out there, and look, listen and contribute.

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

A: I don’t think my leadership approach has changed, but I do think it has been gradually informed, refined and reinforced as a function of my experiences.

For example, I came into this role well aware of the great talent in the nutrition department – among faculty members, students and staff. As we’ve gone through different administrative processes, in some cases leading to significant changes, I continue to be impressed with the creativity and willingness to contribute. I’ve wanted to take advantage of everyone’s skills, and now that’s been reinforced many times. We don’t always agree about what to do or how to do it, but that’s the point of having broad-based discussions. People have a range of opinions, and I absolutely rely on those differing views.

As a leader, you must be ready to take whatever comes at you and not get flustered. I am mission-driven and goal-oriented. The challenge and pleasure of leadership is to find that energizing blend of staying ahead of the curve, being goal-oriented, being forward-thinking and creative, but also listening and incorporating input from other really smart people – all at a pace that moves you forward at a reasonable speed with efficiency and clear communications.

You have to make decisions and take risks. Not everyone will like what you decide all the time, but your team needs a chance to voice their opinions on the big decisions – and to know they’ve been heard.

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

A: Stay mission-driven. There are so many pressures these days because of our political, social and cultural climate. It’s easy to get distracted. We have to keep focused on the fact that all of us are here to improve public health in North Carolina, the country and the world.

I have to come back to the initial questions – What is your mission? What are your goals? Many people look at the current political climate and see the limitations and barriers. A good leader looks at the landscape and asks, Where are the opportunities for advancing my mission and goals? How can I leverage – [whatever it is – a change in government perspectives, or funding or societal focus] – into opportunities?

Our advantage is that no matter where people stand on specific issues, most people care about health. Their concerns may be framed differently; they may care about one component of health more than another. Exploring those differences, though, leads to common ground and opportunity. Asking the difficult questions and managing the avenues of change – those are the spaces in which creative, innovative leaders thrive.


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Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.