Breaking Into – and Surviving In – the Global NGO Sector: Part 3
Category : PROspective
From alum Roice Fulton (GLEPI, 2014):
On Leadership in Public Health
In the long run democracy will be judged… by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster.Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership
As the young leaders of tomorrow, you have the passion and energy and commitment to make a difference. What I’d like to really urge you do is to have a global vision. Go beyond your country; go beyond your national boundaries.Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon
Leadership is a tough concept to nail down. It’s a term that, in my experience, seems most readily defined in its absence. Everyone has had the misfortune of witnessing a project or organization falling apart due to lack of leadership.
Though I won’t try to offer a concrete definition of leadership, there are two lessons I’d like to share. One is understanding how leadership roles can suddenly emerge along your career path, and how those experiences can inform a vision for positive change that starts locally, but reaches globally. The second lesson is simply recognizing that you, as young public health professionals preparing for the greatest public health crisis of our time, are each leaders whether you like it or not – because the world as it is today demands it of you.
While preparing to write these posts, I read through everything on PROspective to see what might help frame my own thoughts on leadership in public health. Every piece of advice given on this blog thus far resonates with my experience – but none so strongly as Lauren Christiansen-Lindquist’s treatise on setbacks (not failures!).
In her article, Dr. Christiansen-Lindquist speaks plainly and effectively to that lingering impostor syndrome that seems to plague our entire generation. What’s more, she offers a strategy for moving forward, and recognizing that moving forward is itself a victory worth celebrating. The qualities she describes reflect qualities I’ve appreciated both in my own fleeting experiences in leadership, and in those whom I consider among the greatest leaders of our generation.
One of Lauren’s suggestions is to share those setbacks. For today’s lesson, then, I’ll share the story of how my biggest setbacks led to some of my most valued leadership experiences.
In 2007, as part of (what I recognize now as) a futile, years-long effort to atone for a middling undergraduate pre-med performance, I moved to Missouri to volunteer as a member of AmeriCorps St. Louis’ Emergency Response Team. After two weeks of training, I was pulled aside and asked to serve as one of a handful of team leaders, tasked with managing a rotating five-person crew during our deployments to conservation and disaster relief projects.
The year that followed would see us respond to ice storms in Missouri, wildfires in Montana, and tornadoes sweeping across the Midwest – with each new crisis demanding that I balance the welfare both of my team and the communities we raced to support. It was a seminal year that instilled in me a vision of how I could be a force for change in communities beyond my own.
Three years later, I returned home to North Carolina to re-center and re-assess my future. I touched base with friends back home, including attending an alumni reunion at a summer educational program I had attended years prior in high school. After volunteering to build a website for the program’s supporting foundation, it wasn’t long before I found myself installed as its vice president – mere weeks before the program suddenly faced an existential funding crisis.
Working together with about a dozen fellow alumni and supporters aged eighteen to near eighty, we were not only able to scrape together the hundreds of thousands needed to keep the program open – we managed to convince the North Carolina legislature to restore funding in perpetuity. That vision I had in AmeriCorps of being a force for change was suddenly realized at a scale I had scarcely imagined. It remains my most cherished life experience.
Today, I’m almost relieved to hold no overt leadership position. My recent attempt to create a research nonprofit here in Geneva exposed the limits of my leadership ability and credibility at this point in my career. It showed to me that in a high-pressure environment, I’m much more comfortable in a support role, rather than at the head of the table.
And so, I moved on to CEPI, quietly keeping its core business sailing smoothly as the organization navigates the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. But leadership comes in many forms, and that vision for positive change that I first developed in AmeriCorps and actualized in North Carolina remains and grows – and anchors me firmly to the global community which I now serve. In due time, I expect that I’ll be asked, here or elsewhere, to take on more responsibility – at which point I hope to be ready to deliver that vision to the fullest.
What I want to convey in sharing this story is that my leadership experiences wouldn’t have even happened were it not for some truly existential-level setbacks. Similarly, you may be faced with a call to lead from unexpected places and at unexpected times, especially as we reckon with a pandemic that touches every facet of our work.
We’ve got to be ready for the call when it comes.
With global leaders now facing a public health crisis partly of their own creation, it’s more important than ever that we, as young professionals, anticipate the leadership duties with which we will inevitably be tasked. We must be champions of reason in our workplaces and in our communities. We must forge strong bonds as teammates and across organizations in overcoming the challenges that face us. We must each craft and test our own vision for change locally, drawing thoughtfully from our lived experience.
And, most importantly, we must execute our vision globally and collectively – and conduct our lives in service to those in greatest need of that vision.
We must do all these things because the world as it is today demands it of us. We must answer that call. We must be leaders.
Roice Fulton, MPH (GLEPI, 2014) is currently an independent consultant for the London- and Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), where he manages projects in CEPI’s epidemiology portfolio. Roice currently lives and works near Geneva, Switzerland.