Have you ever wondered what caused someone to change their life trajectory? Did they make the right decision? Was it for a good reason? Were they not happy with themselves, or were they running away from something? What story did they have to tell, and have you considered listening to it to see what new perspectives you may have for your own?
Transition is never easy. It first involves changing your mindset, having the belief that transition is a way of continuously learning and developing yourself, “converting life’s setbacks to future successes.” It was not until I made a few in my career over the years that I realized the power of learning from the stories of others, sensing your environment, reflecting and drawing on those inspirations to curate your own continuously. This may sometimes come with great sacrifice or risk, such as taking the chance to move into a new battlefield, an unknown realm.
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a doctor – I could not think of anything else in the world that would make me feel accomplished and fulfilled. Two years after achieving this milestone, life threw me a challenge that I accepted. I joined the military – becoming a soldier first and a doctor second. I learned many skills and experienced numerous life-changing moments. I developed a passion for service and for creating a meaningful impact. During my military career, I was introduced to a world where small changes to vulnerable communities could mean that a child survives beyond five years of age, or a single policy change could result in reduced mortality. This new world was different and somewhat special. This new world was public health. I then wondered to myself, “How can I be a part of this change and be a change agent myself?” I did not have all the answers initially but decided to take this leap of faith.
This desire led me to enroll in the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree program at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. This program appealed to me as it emphasized public health leadership and offered me a new lens to view and approach challenges. I was introduced to Heifetz’s Practice of Adaptive Leadership and its many applications in public health. This practice is now the cornerstone of my way of thinking. It also aligned with how we approach problems in the military – understanding the value of generating a sound estimate to ensure successfully “seizing the objective.”
Even though I had led the medical and health services at the Jamaica Defence Force and engaged with various stakeholders and public health professionals, I did not fully appreciate their work. I was accustomed to well-defined command structures with clearly articulated missions that are frequently executed seamlessly. Effecting change would be easy – at least that was the perspective that I had when I started my Summer Field Immersion at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
At PAHO, I was involved in assessing the International Health Regulations core capacities at our Points of Entry. I quickly learned that success, as a public health professional engaged in a technical advisory role, is largely dependent on your ability to successfully engage, communicate with, and influence your stakeholders. During my first few days with PAHO, I was amazed by their culture, which emphasized continuous learning and self-development through various workshops, joint meetings, and learning forums. These collective activities helped to strengthen my confidence as a public health professional. This confidence helped me to face the many hurdles of interacting with stakeholders at all levels, some of whom did not express the same level of priority and urgency to several initiatives driven by my organization. On occasion, I was faced with some opposition by some stakeholders, especially those outside the health sector, who saw our work as an unnecessary intrusion or an obstacle to their operations. I was also a bit surprised by the reception that I received from some partners as I erroneously assumed that buy-in would be easy, given the long-standing reputation and credibility of PAHO. I quickly recognized the importance of continuously cultivating the skills necessary to address adaptive challenges successfully even when focused on more specific technical challenges. It involved iteratively “getting on the balcony above the dance floor,” distinguishing technical from adaptive challenges, mobilizing the system using a “shared language,” and not being afraid to venture into the productive zone of disequilibrium. I also recognized the importance of seeing myself as a system, conducting deep introspection before deploying myself.
The field of public health is exciting, ever evolving and continuously relevant. There is a multitude of opportunities for learning, personal growth, and avenues for effecting meaningful change. I would encourage all leaders in the field of public health to become familiar with and utilize the practices of Adaptive Leadership as a tool for self-transformation and effecting change!
Also see an interview with Gail.
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House
- Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Development Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Ramalingam, B., Nabarro, D., et. al. (2020). 5 Principles to Guide Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/09/5-principles-to-guide-adaptive-leadership
- Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., Linsky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press.
Gail Ranglin Edwards, DrPH ’23, a physician by training and an officer with the Jamaican Defence Force, worked on an assessment of Jamaica’s international health regulations for PAHO.