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Research identifies key skills for public health leaders driving change for better outcomes

Published: 5 December 2023

New research from Public Health Wales, in collaboration with the University of Wolverhampton, has identified four key skills that help public health leaders to drive change and ultimately to improve health outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable in our society. 

Leading systems change is a vital skill needed in the field of public health; the ability to influence decision makers and to inspire others to lead change and to facilitate this to happen. Public health leaders have to work across multiple ‘systems’ because the causes of public health issues are often complex and multi-faceted.  

The findings of a literature review and interviews with eleven public health systems leaders highlight four key leadership traits needed for driving systems change in public health: 

  1. Seeing the bigger picture and choosing suitable approaches 

  1. Effective collaboration and boundary spanning 

  1. Empowering others to lead, building on the concept of distributed leadership 

  1. Maintaining strong underlying motivations and values, including the need for humility and a learning mindset. 

Professor Jo Peden, Consultant in Public Health in Policy and International Health, WHO Collaborating Centre for Public Health Wales, said: “Now more than ever, with fiscal constraints and the need to shift health systems towards prevention, having the leadership skills to bring partners on the journey is essential.  

“At a global and national level, complex public health issues such as climate change need a systems response. This means that public health leaders need to have the ability to understand the bigger picture, to present a vision on how sectors can work together, and to bring those sectors along to collaboratively come up with and implement joint solutions.  

“Whether leading at a local, regional, national or global level, driving systems change is a core public health skill. This research defines the traits of public health leaders who have been successful in driving systems change. We hope that this report encourages the development of these traits in future leaders.” 

James Rees, Deputy Director of the Institute for Community Research and Development at University of Wolverhampton, said: “We were delighted to support this important research which breaks new ground in applying insights from modern leadership theory to the field of public health. We hope the report will support and inspire practitioners to lead complex systems change in Wales and beyond.”