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Reflections on Public Health Leadership

Baker, Edward L., MD, MPH, MSc

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc; Column Editor

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January/February 2019 - Volume 25 - Issue 1 - p 90–91
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000909
The Management Moment

Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Correspondence: Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, MSc, 25 Vassal Lane, Cambridge, MA 02138 (

The author declares no conflicts of interest.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice (JPHMP), it seems useful to begin with a brief acknowledgement of the central leadership role played by Dr Lloyd Novick in this “labor of love” for public health practitioners. Given his deep experience in the practice world, his extraordinary editorial eyes and ears, and his vast network of public health colleagues, Lloyd has been the perfect leader for the entire 25-year life span of the journal—an exceptional “run” in many ways. As noted in the classic text on Leadership by Northouse,1 effective leaders exemplify the central leadership traits of intelligence, integrity, and determination; Lloyd's modeling of these and other exceptional leadership traits has been central to the journal's success as the “go-to resource” for public health practitioners for a quarter of a century.

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The Management Moment Column

In 2004, we approached Dr Novick with the idea of a column focusing on the practice of public health management and leadership. The idea (for which Dr Janet Porter deserves full credit) was to provide public health practitioners with succinct columns on topics that relate to day-to-day public health practice—in a way modeled after the highly acclaimed Harvard Business Review. Now, nearly 15 years later, this partnership with the journal has produced a wide range of short columns on topics such as guiding principles of leadership,2 having better meetings,3 building the informatics-savvy health department,4 crafting better messages for public health in turbulent times,5 success as a state health director,6 and a new public health informatics incubator initiative.7 These columns have been positively received and are now used in leadership development programs and in academic courses on leadership in schools of public health. A book containing a number of these columns was published a few years ago.8 We are most grateful to Dr Novick, Dr Moore, and Sheryl Monks for their encouragement and support for these many years.

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What Are the Most Important “Take-Home Messages” From These Columns?

  1. Practitioners and students valued and utilized our succinct treatment of guiding principles and best practices in leadership and management. From guidance on how to manage conflict within the organization, how to have better meetings, or how to coach for development of emerging leaders, readers of these columns have indicated that they value these brief, evidence-based suggestions on ways to enhance organizational effectiveness. Often, formal educational experiences in schools of public health may fall short in addressing the need for practical leadership and management guidance; as a result, by offering these columns, the journal serves the needs of readers who are busy practitioners with limits on time to read and incorporate suggestions into their practice. Furthermore, topics such as succession planning in public health agencies, managing the boss, and transitioning into a new position represent common challenges faced by public health leaders for which we found little in the public health literature; therefore, we decided that a succinct discussion might prove useful.
  2. Leadership challenges faced by state health officials (SHOs) deserved particular focus. In 2017, a unique opportunity arose to share early findings of the first ever research project on SHOs, led by Dr Paul Halverson, founding Dean of the Fairbanks School of Public Health in Indiana. In a series of columns, we shared concepts regarding the definition of success for an SHO, information on what they wish they had known before taking the job and ways to avoid premature “derailment.” Although focused on the directors of state public health agencies, our research findings are broadly applicable to others in leadership positions throughout the public health system. These columns are now being used as part of training and orientation of new and current SHOs by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. In 2013, a timely column by John Auerbach9 (a former SHO) provided a unique insight into the leadership challenges faced in the development of the 2007 Massachusetts health reform effort as public health took a seat at the table in this historic time.
  3. Informatics has become a cornerstone of public health practice and deserved special attention as a leadership and management imperative. Following the development of the concept of “the Informatics-Savvy Health Department” by Martin LaVenture, Bill Brand, and colleagues, a series of columns was created to highlight and summarize the strategies needed for a health agency to become “informatics savvy.” These 3 strategies are (1) ensuring a clear vision and strategy supported by effective internal leadership and governance, (2) developing a skilled workforce, and (3) creating well-designed and effectively used information systems. To achieve the goal of becoming informatics savvy, a robust business plan is needed, which was the focus of another column in this series. Finally, our most recent call to action highlights the urgent need for widespread adoption of the “informatics-savvy approach,” as has been done in a few leading health agencies across the nation. In another informatics-related column, we profiled a promising approach to augmenting the skills of the informatics workforce through academic-practice partnerships—public health informatics incubators7; this approach has recently been endorsed by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think tank as meriting further study.
  4. Public health is faced with unique messaging challenges in these turbulent political times that deserved our attention. As we all know, the unprecedented political and social upheavals of our times call for a fresh look at the communication challenges faced by public health operating in these polarized environments. To assist public health leaders as they navigate these “troubled waters,” we created 2 columns led by Gene Matthews and colleagues delineating concepts underlying better public health messages based on Moral Foundations Theory. In addition, these columns have been used to assist public health leaders by providing practical suggestions for bridging the gaps between a range of perspectives leading to tangible policy change in surprising situations5 (eg, legislation authorizing needle exchange in North Carolina).
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As a result of the ongoing support and encouragement of Dr Novick and JPHMP colleagues and staff, the creation of our series of management moment columns has been a true pleasure and a privilege. One aspect of personal pride has been that we have been able to help in sharing the ideas and insights of my public health colleagues and in giving a forum through which their ideas and insights can reach a broader audience and thereby enrich and inform the practice of public health. Readers of this column are also invited follow my new interview series of the same name on, where I will be talking with public health leaders who have been part of Management Moments. My hope is that we may continue to share more words of wisdom in the months to come. For this opportunity, I am most grateful.

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1. Northouse PG. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 8th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; 2018.
2. Baker EL. Leadership and management—guiding principles, best practices and core attributes. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2014;20(3):356–357.
3. Porter J, Baker EL. Meetings, meetings and more meetings. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2006;12(1):103–106.
4. LaVenture M, Brand B, Baker EL. Developing an informatics-savvy health department: from discrete projects to a coordinating program, part II: creating a skilled workforce. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2017;23(6):638–640.
5. Matthews G, Burris S, Ledford SL, Gunderson G, Baker EL. Crafting richer messages for a turbulent political environment. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2017;23(4):420–423.
6. Halverson PK, Castrucci BC, Moffatt S, Hancock SE, Boedigheimer SF, Baker EL. State health officials—defining success and identifying critical success factors. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2017;23(2):192–194.
7. Braunstein ML, Martin LaVenture M, Baker EL. Public health informatics incubators—accelerating innovation through creative partnerships between informatics experts and public health agencies. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2018;24(3):286–288.
8. Baker EL, Menkens AJ, Porter JE. Managing the Public Health Enterprise. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett; 2010.
9. Auerbach J. Lessons from the front line: the Massachusetts experience of the role of public health in health care reform. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2013;19(5):488–491.
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