One Cure for the World’s Toughest Challenges? Bold Leaders, Connected

May 19, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Herminia Palacio

Change leadership means thinking big about impact, responding to urgent needs, and actively tolerating risk. This is the kind of big, bold way of working—together—that will get us to a Culture of Health.

Just over a year ago, I started in a new role at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Not long after, my colleagues and I began the exciting, challenging, and collaborative process of co-designing four new programs that will develop, train, and network change leaders who will help build a Culture of Health.

You may be wondering – What is change leadership? How do we know it when we see it? And, why is it essential for achieving RWJF’s vision?

Here's the type of challenge our nation's leaders often face:

For a half-century, charities, nonprofits and local and federal governments have poured billions of dollars into addressing the problems plaguing [many] Americans. But each issue tends to be treated separately – as if there is no connection between a safe environment and a child’s ability to learn, or high school dropout rates and crime. –The Wall Street Journal, September 2013

Now here's an example of what change leadership looks like:

In 1993, Thomas Cousins, CEO of Atlanta-based real estate investment trust Cousins Properties, Inc., embarked on a lofty mission – to transform the city’s East Lake Meadows public-housing project from an under-resourced, dangerous community into a safe, prosperous, and healthy one. As The Wall Street Journal reported, Cousins and his team “worked with community and city leaders on every major issue at the same time: mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education program, job readiness, and health and wellness opportunities.”

The results were significant: By 2013, violent crime in East Lake had gone down 90 percent, employment among families on welfare had risen from 13 percent to 70 percent, and the surrounding area had become populated by stores, restaurants, and other services. Ultimately, Cousins’ multi-sectoral, collaborative approach not only transformed the East Lake Meadows community, but also inspired the creation of Purpose Built Communities, an organization that supports similar projects across the country in order to disrupt the cycle of pervasive, intergenerational poverty.

Cousins is someone who I think embodies change leadership – a concept from the business literature that focuses on initiating large-scale change, responding to urgent needs, actively tolerating risk, and seeking inspiration through collaboration. While change leaders like Cousins may seem like one in a million, I would argue that there are thousands of leaders with the talent and potential for such impact – and that identifying, supporting, and connecting them is essential to building a Culture of Health.  

Take José A. Pagán, for example. He’s a former Fulbright Scholar, World Bank consultant, RWJF Health and Society Scholar, and health services researcher who is now director of the Center for Health Innovation at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). In his current role, Pagán is engaging in change leadership work under RWJF’s initiative Data and Information Systems for Bridging Health and Health Care, where NYAM will work closely with IBM to combine expertise in urban health policy research with expertise in data analytics. Together, the two organizations will examine multiple determinants of child health in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in order to identify strategies for reducing infant mortality.

Another standout change leader, Shiriki Kumanyika, MD, is professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, holds multiple advanced degrees in social work, nutrition, and public health, and is now the president of the American Public Health Association. In 2002, Dr. Kumanyika founded the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network, known as AACORN. “Instead of looking at [a community] through the problem, we try to understand the people and then see where the problem or issue is situated within their lives,” Kumanyika has said of AACORN’s networked, collaborative approach. The world and its wicked problems are rapidly changing, and it will take leaders like Cousins, Pagán, Kumanyika, and others to ensure we collectively rise to the challenge.

In February 2014, RWJF announced that in order to support our new Culture of Heath vision, we had made the difficult decision to wind down 10 of our Human Capital programs. While such transitions are challenging, they also opened up a world of new possibilities, including the development of four new programs focused on change leaders from multiple sectors and backgrounds: RWJF Diversity in Health Policy Research, RWJF Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, RWJF Multi-sector Leaders for Health, and RWJF New Clinical Scholars.

As Risa Lavizzo-Mourey said in her 2015 President’s Message, our new programs will “engage sectors beyond health and health care, promote teamwork and collaboration, advance diversity and leverage technology to support robust networks and enhance mentoring.” This new paradigm will allow us to support even more scholars and leaders more efficiently, connect people across sectors and disciplines, and capitalize on new and existing resources. It will allow us to invest in people in systemic, interconnected ways that meet the challenges of the evolving landscape of health and health care head-on.

It’s also why we’ve taken an open and iterative approach to our design process.

Late last year, we contracted with seven organizations representing academic, design, futurist, and community development perspectives to help us think through design elements, curriculum components, and other necessary considerations for RWJF’s four new programs. We’ve also incorporated insights and recommendations from a cross-sectorial Design Advisory Committee, which included both RWJF program alumni and grantees and leaders from fields outside of health and health care.

Herminia Palacio, MD, MPH, is the director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Advancing Change Leadership Team.