New Partners, New Ways of Thinking: Supporting “Change Leadership” to Build a Healthier Nation

Nov 19, 2015, 1:17 PM, Posted by Herminia Palacio

Building a Culture of Health requires supporting and connecting leaders who can drive change by tolerating risk and seeking inspiration through collaboration.

Building a Culture of Health isn’t easy. It may seem obvious, but think about it: Our nation didn’t develop its current Culture of Unhealth overnight. Reversing it won’t happen quickly, either. As John Lumpkin pointed out recently, paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “You cannot fix problems with the same logic you used in creating them.”

That’s why change leadership is so important.

Earlier this year, I blogged about change leadership and the integral role it must play in building a Culture of Health. That’s when we announced that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would issue a call for proposals for organizations to lead four new National Leadership Program Centers. Just a few weeks ago, the Foundation announced the institutions selected to receive planning grants to get these four new leadership programs off the ground. The programs and institutions are:

  • Health Policy Research Scholars: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. which will support doctoral students from underrepresented and/or disadvantaged populations by providing training in health policy, health equity, and population health. They will gain the needed skills and supports to lead change in communities across the nation.
  • Interdisciplinary Research Leaders: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. will develop groups of networked researchers and community members who apply as a team, and who are dedicated to producing evidence needed to move the U.S. towards a Culture of Health.
  • Culture of Health Leaders: National Collaborative for Health Equity, a project of New Venture Fund, Washington, D.C. will develop a diverse group of leaders representing key sectors influencing health (e.g., education, transportation, public health and public policy, business, health care, community development, and urban planning) and help them grow their influence to the next level.
  • Clinical Scholars: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C. will develop cohorts of networked clinicians who have attained a terminal clinical degree and who have the competencies to lead transformative change in communities to build a Culture of Health.

It’s been an exhilarating journey—and this week, it got very real.

Collaboratives of bright, energetic, passionate, and innovative folks from each of these program centers came together for three days this week in Princeton to begin the challenging and rewarding task of turning this leadership vision into a reality. These clinicians, community leaders, academics, social justice advocates, researchers, policy analysts, brought a myriad of expertise and perspectives to thinking about how to co-create programs that will foster the kind of leaders who will build a Culture of Health. They mapped out assets that can be shared across programs, as well as the unique skill set each group brought to the equation.

We didn’t depart at the end with every detail ironed out, but rather with a collective insight and a clear direction for the months leading up to applicant recruitment and program launch.

I came away from our time together with a number of insights into what will be required of all of us—both Foundation and program center staff—to make this audacious goal a reality. We must be committed to:

  • Failing—and learning from our failures—quickly. It is human nature (particularly in philanthropy) to do lots and lots of legwork first, then act. We need to get more comfortable with testing our hypotheses and adjusting our course as we go.
  • Unlearning our training. Academics, researchers, and clinicians are trained to set a goal and focus on it, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. It makes us reluctant to adjust our goals, even when circumstances call for it.
  • Being flexible and open-minded. Change leaders know that there is more than one way to get to where we need to be. They value others’ perspectives—even when they differ wildly from their own.

RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey summed it when she spoke to the group as we embarked on our second day of planning: “We must shift how we support, and actually define, ‘health leaders,’” she said, “to encompass a wider range of disciplines and professions—precisely because so many of the factors that contribute to good health lie beyond the health sector.”

I am exhilarated by witnessing this very large group gather to begin collaboratively building innovative systems to develop and support the change leaders who will help their communities and our nation get to a Culture of Health.

What’s most exciting about the work we did this week? My answer: With every milestone along this journey, I start to see a different aspect of the Culture of Health vision come into focus—and the view just takes my breath away.

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