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The Evolution of a Leader

Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L.

Author Information
Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: September/October 2011 - Volume 17 - Issue 5 - p 475-477
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e318229ae3c

Leaders, as they develop, evolve through a series of stages. At each stage, development can be fostered or, unfortunately, at times, neglected. Organized leadership development experiences, utilizing tested and proven methods, can both unlock potential and create a cascade of learning that benefits the individual leader, his or her colleagues, and the organizations that they lead.1 The nature of the developmental experience is influenced by the leader's stage of development and the attendant capabilities of the leader. In this article, I will share a simple model that describes 4 stages in the evolution of a leader and related development approaches at each stage.

The Emerging Leader

We have all seen young people, particularly those in the advanced stages of postgraduate training, who demonstrate high leadership potential. We at times label these individuals as “rising stars,” on the basis of their demonstration of impressive personal attributes. These emerging leaders have unique needs. First, they need to be identified as emerging leaders by those whom they respect. Many relate the importance of a teacher or mentor who saw something in them and simply communicated that observation. Also, emerging leaders need to develop a personal awareness of themselves as a potential leader and an awareness of their own specific leadership talents and abilities. Furthermore, an understanding of the behaviors and concepts related to the practice of leadership can lay a foundation on which to build.

To address some of these needs, emerging leaders will benefit from an established, formal mentoring relationship with a more experienced leader. Mentorship has been shown to be a critical success factor in the development of outstanding leaders and can address the need for identification of individual potential and enhance awareness. Mentors can also be a resource for development opportunities and a reference point as the emerging leader begins to develop. Emerging leaders must seek out a mentor rather than hoping that one will come along. An active approach to finding and committing to a mentorship relationship in the earliest stage of development is crucial to ensuring that the potential of the emerging leader is recognized and nurtured. The best mentors are individuals who have themselves had leadership experiences comparable with those of the mentee; formally trained mentors who have the skill set of executive coaches are ideal. It is often best to have a formal “contract,” which delineates the roles and responsibilities of the mentor and mentee, provides ground rules (e.g., confidentiality) for the mentoring relationship, and lays out expectations.

The Early Leader

Once a leader completes his or her training, the individual enters the workplace and becomes an early leader, often leading a team dedicated to a particular task. Often the early leader, particularly in the health field, will use technical skills developed in training (e.g., epidemiology or clinical skills) to attack a particular problem or task. These technical skills are often necessary in understanding the problem (e.g., investigating an epidemic) but often not sufficient in addressing the broader changes in practice and policy needed to address the underlying causes of a health problem.

In this regard, Heifetz and Linsky2 discuss the difference between “technical change and adaptive change.” Technical problems can be solved by applying existing know-how to a current problem. Adaptive change requires development of new ways of understanding and often painful and difficult changes in behaviors and practices. To develop as a leader, the early leader should come to see problems from both a technical perspective and also as adaptive challenges, which require a skill set that complements the technical skills of the individual leader. To begin to develop an appreciation of leadership concepts such as these, an early leader needs knowledge of leadership best practices.

To develop a broader leadership skill set, the early leader often needs greater self-awareness and may benefit from a more formal process in which specific leadership attributes are assessed using validated instruments. Use of leadership skill assessment tools, such as 360° assessments and other techniques, can enhance self-awareness and can lead to plans for individual development. Perhaps the greatest benefits of use of these tools can be an enhanced awareness of the perceptions of others and a greater appreciation of one's strengths and developmental needs.

During the early leader stage, formation of formal or informal peer networks is vitally important as a way of sharing lessons learned and insights into challenges faced by early leaders (e.g., how to relate to a difficult boss or how to recruit and retain excellent staff). Peer networks require a commitment of the peers and may disintegrate without the strong agreement of the group to a continued interaction.

Participation in a formal leadership development program is also of great value at this stage as a way to assess and develop leadership skills. Such leadership development programs provide both an opportunity to “retreat” from the daily work demands and an opportunity to develop new skills and perspectives. Participation in such programs every 5 years or so throughout one's career can lead to a commitment to life-long learning and incremental improvement in leadership skills.

The Established Leader

Once an individual passes through the early stages of leadership practice, he or she enters a phase of organizational leadership, often at a “higher level” with an ever-expanding range of roles and responsibilities. At this stage, leadership success is usually not determined by technical proficiency (which is often assumed to be present); rather, skills in dealing with adaptive challenges as noted earlier are crucial. Established leaders must deal with ambiguity, conflicting demands, and a range of challenges that grow more complex over time. At present, established public health leaders are faced with major economic and political challenges along with a need to redefine the role of public health in a rapidly changing health system.

Established leaders have many needs shared by emerging and early leaders, such as a vibrant peer network, a thoughtful coach, and the opportunity to renew oneself through organized leadership development experiences. The need for renewal is particularly vital for established leaders, whose work life can often resemble a marathon run without a finish line. Frequently, established leaders conclude that they are just too busy to commit to their own leadership development needs. Unfortunately, if this occurs, one can begin to wither and lose effectiveness. Furthermore, by failing to commit to some type of leadership development, established leaders can repeat the same mistakes over and over without learning from them.

The most successful established leaders are those whose commitment to their own life-long learning is unabated during this most demanding stage of their career. Those who commit to their own development benefit not only themselves but others by setting an example and by improving their skills over time. As a result, established leaders continue to grow and to demonstrate the benefits of a life-long commitment to leadership development.

The Emeritus Leader

At some point, the established leader is no longer running the marathon race without a finish line and may transition into a new role, as an emeritus leader. The emeritus leader leads through thoughts rather than through deeds. As a reflective practitioner, the emeritus leader leads through influence more than by attempting to control events. The emeritus leader is conceptually skilled and wisdom-oriented and can be of direct benefit to those emerging, early, and established leaders as a guide, a sounding board, or a coach.

Emeritus leaders also have their own needs. They need opportunities to share their wisdom and thereby continue to exert a positive influence on the unfolding of events. They also benefit from having their own peer networks as a way to remain in touch with current and future challenges.

Recently, Dr David Sencer, the longest-serving director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, died at the age of 86 years. He was, in many respects, the role model for an emeritus leader (as he also was at earlier stages of his illustrious career). In his later years, he shared his wisdom with generations of early, emerging, and established public health leaders throughout the world. Through his influence as an emeritus leader, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the organization that he led for over 11 years, and the entire global public system benefited in ways that can never be adequately measured. In reflecting on what it means to be an outstanding emeritus leader, Dr Sencer set a very high standard, which we all can strive to emulate.


Leadership development is essential at all stages of a leader's career. The needs may change somewhat over time as the leader matures and faces new and unexpected challenges. Nevertheless, some essential features exist throughout the life of a leader. Periodic assessment of leadership behaviors and practices can serve as a way to assess progress and address the ongoing need for growing self-awareness. Mentoring and coaching are especially valuable in the early and mid stages of a career; as one enters the emeritus leader stage, the opportunity exists to give back to others what one has learned by mentoring others. Participation in formal, structured leadership development experiences, every 5 years or so, demonstrates a commitment to life-long learning that will pay off in surprising and gratifying ways. Commitment to the creation and maintenance of peer networks will provide an unending reservoir of support and wisdom with a range of benefits, both expected and unexpected. Throughout these stages of the evolution of a leader, commitment to continuing leadership development is central to ensuring that public health leaders can provide much-needed leadership to ensure that the health of the public is protected and promoted throughout the United States and around the world.


1. Umble K, Baker EL, Woltring C. An evaluation of the National Public Health Leadership Institute—1991–2006. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17(3):202–213.
2. Heifetz RA, Linsky MA. Survival guide for leaders. Harv Bus Rev. 2002;80(6):65–74.
© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.