October 24, 2012

Understanding Leadership Around the World: GHLI Study

Lauren Taylor, Ghana Delegation Facilitator, GHLI,
Leslie Curry, Senior Research Scientist, GHLI

Each year, GHLI hosts a conference convening delegates from several Sub-Saharan African countries. The conference offers a forum for health practitioners, policymakers and researchers to facilitate collaborative, contextually-driven solutions in strengthening health systems. Delegates bring with them not only content expertise to share, but, perhaps more importantly, experiences of leadership from which we all can learn.

With this thinking in mind, a GHLI research team sought to better understand what it’s like to be in leadership positions in diverse environments. The conference offered a unique opportunity to conduct extensive interviews with delegates from Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Rwanda to learn the challenges and rewards of their roles in their particular health systems.

We distilled five themes that were common to the delegates’ shared experience: 1) having an aspirational, value-based vision for the future of their country’s health care system, 2) being self-aware and having the ability to identify and use complementary skills in others, 3) investing in and managing relationships, 4) using data in decision making and 5) sustaining a commitment to learning.

The findings may be surprising to some in the degree to which they align with progressive conceptions of Western leadership. The focus on humility, the acknowledgement of larger teams and systems, the value placed on relationships and explicit emphasis on continual learning are all tenets of what academics have termed “value-based” and “relational” leadership over the past ten years. In the West, discussions of leadership “traits” and “styles” have been replaced by a growing view that all have leadership potential; success in leadership roles comes from honing one’s natural leadership skills as well as developing empowered complements. David Berg, GHLI affiliate, has made important contributions in advancing and disseminating this revised conception of leadership. As we continue on this path, our findings suggest that we would do well to partner closely with our African peers, whose distinctive cultural and historical roots appear to encourage such liberal thinking about the makings of modern leadership. These GHLI study findings are published in Human Resources for Health and are available here.

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