October 15, 2017

Kurt M. Ribisl, PhD
Professor and chair, Health Behavior
Co-program leader for cancer prevention and control, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

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

A: I sometimes think students believe that they need lots of leadership training to be a leader – or that ‘other people’ are leaders and they don’t need to step up and lead. I encourage students to take on leadership roles while they are training here. Put yourself out there – you will make mistakes and quickly learn from them. Don’t be afraid. This is the mouse race before you start the rat race.

Years ago, epidemiology doctoral student and entrepreneur Nabarun Dasgupta told me about the book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (2011). The book promotes agile development methods used for software, but its key point can be applied to leadership. You should create a “minimum viable product” and invite users to provide feedback on it so you can continually improve it.

Don’t obsess or wait years to develop a program in your area of public health – start drafting something and iterate it. Start with something – it may be embarrassing – but continually improve it. You will be better off than if you had waited and waited to have something “perfect.”

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

A: I have only been chair for a few months, so it has not changed that much yet. My other leadership positions had a much narrower focus – I led a cancer research network and a large tobacco center grant. However, the chair job has many more diverse constituencies. Every day, I am now balancing the needs and aspirations of our students, faculty and staff members, and alumni. I really enjoy working with all of these groups, especially the students.

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

A: We need to listen, be nimble and take on tough challenges. I am working with a leadership coach, and he reminds me that I need to listen more because I naturally want to solve things quickly. I am meeting with all of our faculty and staff and our student leaders – about 50 meetings altogether – and I’m nearly two-thirds done. I had a fairly solid command of many of the key issues, but there are many other issues that are salient for students and staff that are new to me. Leaders must adapt and be nimble. We must embrace change.

Some tough issues are set on the back burner, but I have learned they ultimately will start a conflagration unless we address them head on.

For instance, we have not had enough discussions about diversity and inclusion within our department and at the national level. I appreciate that my predecessor, Dr. Leslie Lytle, started a dialogue on these topics – and we will continue it. These conversations stir up strong feelings and can be intense, but we need to have them. Sometimes they are awkward and painful, but that cannot deter us.

I really want our department and the Gillings School to make a difference, and I am optimistic that we will be a major force for change.

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