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What Hat Are You Wearing?

Porter, Janet E. PhD

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L.

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: July/August 2011 - Volume 17 - Issue 4 - p 393-395
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e31821e0dc6
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In Brief

A good question that you should ask yourself is this: If you were on your first day as a local public health director, what 3 documents would you want to see to be oriented to your job? Also, on that first day, how would you spend your time? This is not a trick question. There really is no right or wrong answer. But what first comes to mind is a powerful statement about the hat you think you are wearing on that first day.

Let us say that you indicate that you want to see the organization chart, personnel files, and spend the time talking individually with your direct reports so you can get to know them. That means you see your primary role as a boss, a motivator of people, someone whose job is to connect and lead middle managers at the health department. Or you might want to see the minutes of the county commissioners' meeting for the past 6 months and the priorities they have established for the current fiscal year and you want to spend your first day connected with key external stakeholders. Then you see yourself as a boundary spanner whose job is to connect the health department to the community at large. Or you want to see the strategic plan, the annual goals, and to meet with the team to hear how they see their individual goals support the strategic plan. Then the pivotal role you see yourself playing as the county health director is as a planner whose job is to make sure that goals get accomplished.

One colleague discussed the enduring epiphany she had about defining her role. She likes to present, in fact, feels very comfortable presenting to large audiences. But one day she had one of her direct reports do the presentation before the board. And as she sat there, she realized that she felt greater pride in the fact that this direct report was doing a terrific job communicating the issue and plan, than if she had the presentation well herself. Granted, the presentation was not exactly like she herself would have done. But what was more important was that she had coached and groomed and prepared that direct report so that she could shine in her communication skills. At that point, the colleague realized that her primary role was to coach others to excel. She said she has never been the same. She realizes that her role is literally to prepare others to get up to bat and hit it out of the ballpark—that it is not her job to be the player. She said, “That was the day I put my coaching hat on and it impacts who I hire, how I spend my time, the messages I gives to others.”

Another colleague described a similar transformation when she was hiring for a key manager on her team. Until that moment, she saw her job as being the person who selected the ideal candidate, oriented them, and groomed them for success in their job. She saw herself as a coach of individuals. But after being in this job for 9 years, with this one hire, she realized that she needed to hire the best person to complement the team. Rather than going for ideal job-person fit, she realized that she needed to think about what the team as a whole needed to be successful. And, in this instance, even though the best candidate on person was whom she would have hired previously, she hired another candidate because she brought the freshest, most entrepreneurial perspective, and that was definitely, what team needed. From that moment on, she said she saw herself as a team builder—not as a coach of individuals.

It is interesting to think about this in the context of recent autobiographies by US Presidents. Jimmy Carter has written numerous books since he left office. The titles are a revealing picture of his sense of the primary role of a leader. Some of the titles are The Personal Beliefs of Jimmy Carter and Keeping Faith and Our Endangered Values. President Carter sees his overarching role as a leader as a values definer. His philosophy about leadership is that the role of a leader is to clarify the values of the organization, the company, the country, and to personally model those values. George W. Bush's recent autobiography is titled Decision Points. Clearly, President Bush's philosophy is that the leader is the decision maker. The book articulates the key decisions he was required to make while in office. The way these men defined their role, determined how they spent their time, what information they did and not want, who they hired, who would support them being able to carry out their self-defined role.

Louis Rowitz1 in Public Health Leadership: Putting Principles into Practice describes 10 different practices the successful leader must master. For example, 3 key practices are the ability to synthesize knowledge, the ability to be entrepreneurial, and the ability to set priorities. And every day leaders have to balance all of those many roles. So the typical leaders will respond when asked what hat they are wearing, “It depends upon what time of day and what day of the week it is.” You need the ability to recognize that you have to be a figurehead between 8 and 9 and a goal setter between 9 and 10, and a coach from 10 to 11. That requires tremendous skills and flexibility and emotional intelligence. Much effort has gone into defining the varied roles that public health leaders have to play so that skills-building leadership programs can be developed that are effective. But overlaying the need to be analytical and creative and decisive is the leader's sense of fundamentally what overarching role they should be playing.

So, what shapes our definition of the prevailing role we should be playing? First, let us talk about nature in the nature-versus-nurture debate. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator2 is one of the best-known personality assessment tools. Many public health leaders have taken this test and can quote their profile; “I'm an INTJ.” There is the dimension of extroversion (E) versus introversion (I); the dimension of thinking (T) and feeling (F); the dimension of judgment (J) versus perception (P). These dimensions explain your natural inclination—like your tendency to be right-handed or left-handed. But the fourth dimension illustrates a leader's tendency to focuses on the here and now (S for sensing) or on the future (N for intuitive). Recently, 2 public health leaders were meeting to discuss planning for a new building. The health director was imploring the medical director to make sure that they designed a building that met the needs through at least 2025. Arguing strongly that the team needed to imagine future needs and design a building that meet those needs for decades into the future, this intuitive (N) leader got exasperated by his colleague who simply could not engage in the conversation. Finally, the medical director said, “I cannot worry about 2025.... I am too worried about Thursday.” Clearly, the medical director's natural inclination was to think about the here and now (S for sensing), which almost left him impaired in his ability to imagine the future. He simply could not wipe the slate clean and imagine the future because he is a concrete, specific person, focused on the immediately timeframe. So, we have a natural inclination that shapes our tendency to define our role. Using the previous example, since Js in Myers-Briggs are very decisive, the assumption would be that President Bush is a J. He sees his role to be decisive and he has a natural inclination to be decisive. But he also clearly defines his role as being the decision maker. That is what he thinks the President of the United States is supposed to be. The buck stops here.

And of course the nurturing we received growing up from parents and aunts and teachers and coaches provides a life-long sense of who we are and what strengths we have and how we might build upon those strengths. An interesting interview question is to ask an applicant, “When you were growing up, what was your early message that completed this sentence: ‘Daryl, you are so....’” One nursing director candidate indicated that the answer was, “Kathy, you are so diplomatic.” She could remember being very young and being told that and not even understanding what the term “diplomatic” meant. But she knew that she got noticed and affirmed for this tendency. And every child wants to be noticed and to get positive feedback. So, she reflected in the interview that she probably had those tendencies because she got so much attention for being the one who smoothed things over with her siblings and classmates, that she has always defined herself as the diplomat. She actually was not hired for the job because the job required some tough decision making and the team's assessment was that she would be so busy trying to appease everyone that she would not be effective. The team concluded that she wanted to be everyone's friend and that was not what the organization needed in terms of leadership.

And of course, role models and experiences shape our perception of what role the leader should play. Think back to the first boss you had. Because we know that we are most impacted by primacy—our first impression—and recency—our most recent impression, your first boss not only is likely to be very memorable to you but also probably imprinted upon you some sense of what the primary role is that a leader plays. That impression might be very positive and something you want to emulate whereas your lasting impression might be that you want to be the absolute opposite of that first boss. Ask yourself what early experiences drove your fundamental sense of the role of the leader. When one person was asked this recently in an interview the response was that the last thing in the world a good leader should be is a micromanager. They went on to recount in great detail the frustration the team had experienced with a first boss—some 20 years ago—who micromanaged everyone. This person indicated that their primary goal was to hire good people, trust and empower them, and never ever do their job for them. In a public health leadership course, one participant commented that she did not realize the impact her first boss had on her until one of her staff gave her feedback that was exactly the feedback she had always wanted to give her first boss. The comment she made was, “Even though I thought I was not behaving as a process person, when my staff member said I was all about process, process, process, and not actually getting outcomes, I realized that I when I was young and impressionable that my first boss had driven me crazy with process. Unbeknownst to me, I had really become that same type of leader. That one comment drove me to reevaluate my role in the public health department.”

And your current boss is shaping the role you think you should be playing. One public health leader commented that in a 360-performance appraisal of the entire team, that he was identified as the most strategic person on the team. His comment was that he did not think his natural inclination was to be strategic and had not been defined by that characteristic by previous employers but his current role demanded that he be strategic because the public health director was not. So, in contrast to a public health director who was very focused on the present, he not only had to be more future-focused but he appeared to others to be extraordinarily future-focused in contrast.

So how do you gain self-knowledge about the enduring role you think you should be playing that defines you as a leader? Never underestimate the power of reflection. Thinking through some of the prior questions may give you a different perspective on how you see yourself. And leadership assessments like Myers-Briggs often have a profound impact on they way we see ourselves. And 360-assessments where others tell you the way you are perceived can powerfully shape thinking. But another simple exercise can also give you an enlightening—and potentially more truthful—perspective.

This exercise involves looking at your calendar. Your calendar is a mirror into the way you deploy yourself. A little digression is warranted here. Years ago, a colleague indicated that he was setting up his own board of directors—for himself. When asked what he was talking about, he replied, “I am a community asset. Not for profits are community assets. They have boards that direct them for the greatest community good. I need a board that will direct me for the greatest community good. They need to optimally deploy me.” A few years later, this colleague was on the cover of a national publication touting him as a leader for the future. It is interesting to think about the role his board of directors had in making that possible.

And so, your calendar is a reflection of the way you see your role and deploy yourself for the greatest organizational and community good. How are you spending your time? What ratio of time is spent with people external your health department versus within the health department? What ratio of time is spent on current issues resolution versus planning for the future? What amount of time is spent meeting with individuals versus meeting with groups of staff? How much time is spent directing people as opposed to recognizing their accomplishments? How much time is spent planning and processing as opposed to resolving issues and getting outcomes? This exercise costs nothing and takes little time but can cause you to pause and think about the way you spend your time. The way you spend your time illustrates to everyone what your values are—and how you define your role.

The hat you are wearing plays a powerful role in how you see yourself and how others see you. A key part of emotional intelligence is having an accurate picture of how you are seen by others—warts and all. Only when you reflect and understand what hat you put on when you go to work every day, can you really evaluate, at this stage of your career and with these job responsibilities, what hat you want to have on your head.


1. Rowitz L Public Health Leadership: Putting Principles Into Practice. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
2. Myers I Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Brealey.
Copyright © 2011 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.