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Being an Effective Public Health Leader

Public Health Leadership

A leader has the power to influence, to communicate a clear vision which is attractive to their followers and have the ability to deliver on that vision. A leader also delivers results. In public health, you need to apply this to improving the health of a community or population. Good public health leadership will result in attributable improvement in population health, better inter-agency working, higher profile for public health and greater efficiency in health decision-making. It is difficult to pin down how to be an excellent leader but if you have a vision and can take people with you and realize that vision then you have good leadership skills.

Effective Leader

An effective leader puts work into context (i.e. creates the vision/big picture, involves the team, sets clear and agreed goals and monitors and reviews performance); develops the follower; leads by example (i.e. is open, shows integrity and encourages honesty; acknowledges own shortcomings and mistakes, displays confidence and commitment); provides support (i.e. is available and approachable, encourages, listens and is receptive to ideas, takes appropriate responsibility). Aim to build trust - be a 'good enough' leader not perfect leader.

Types of Leader

  • Supporting Leader - the individual/team is capable but cautious
  • Coaching Leader - the individual/team is disillusioned learner
  • Delegating Leader - the individual/team is independent achiever
  • Directing Leader - the individual/team is an enthusiastic beginner


Delegation is the entrusting to others the responsibility for a task together with the authority to do it. Delegation can be difficult to do as we may think that no one can do it as well as ourselves, we enjoying doing the taks or we may think that it slows down the process. We may feel a loss of information or control. Delegation is not the 'dumping of a task', it does involve defining the aims, planning the project/task, developing individuals/team and evaluating it. 

When delegating, you need to consider the competence of the staff. There are four variations: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. Someone once likened it to me as a learner driver - you don't know you're bad at driving a car (unconscious incompetence), you starting learning to drive and realise you have a lot to learn(conscious incompetence), you pass your test but you are paying attention to driving well (conscious competence) to finally, you are experienced at driving and no longer have to concentrate on what you are doing (unconscious competence). Delegation does involve realising where the person is on this scale and delegating then appropriate. For example the conscious incompetent will need coaching and direction whilst the conscious competent will need mentoring.

Key skills in Effective Delegation

  1. Select the right staff
  2. Train and develop the individual
  3. Brief and check understanding
  4. Stand back and support
  5. Control in a sensitive way

Key Points in Effective Delegation

  • Delegation is not abdication. You do need to have some degree of control over what is happening.
  • When delegating, consider the limits of your own time. Freeing up your work means focusing on your priorities and delegating the rest.
  • Delegation is not just getting rid of the stuff you don't want to do, it is also about giving people the power to make decisions and to act in your place.
  • When delegating, ask yourself why have you chosen to delegate this task? Who could you delegate it to? What could you gain by this person taking on the task? How will you prepare them? And what will be your role before, during and after the task? How often will feedback be?

Something to think about..

Public health leaders typically are driven by some sense of mission to improve health and wellbeing.  Whilst it is important to have passion for what you are doing, you need to be able to draw on political, managerial, interpersonal and business skills to make sure you get the best outcomes for your population.  Sometimes you will be leading from behind, taking people with you and this requires tactical skills.  It's also worth noting that in public health to get something done requires more than one person and you can often be the invisible force behind a movement.  You don't do public health to be recognised, you do it for the good of others and sometimes someone else will get the credit.  It is a different form of leadership  to the one people usually think of.  

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