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Charting the course: translating good leadership into digital spaces

by Lois King

This month's blog - written by our blog editor Lois King - details reflections on positive female leadership during times of digital over-reliance, inspired by one of our launch events and our upcoming mentorship programme.

Media from Wix

New Zealand. Taiwan. Finland. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these female-led nations have often been somewhat idolised as having leaders that got it right in pandemic response thanks to #GirlPower. There is no doubt these politicians prioritised quick and decisive action early on to minimise loss of life. However, these successes are being associated with gendered stereotypes that women as “natural nurturers” tend to be more kind, risk-averse and empathetic to human suffering. While these traits are undeniably positive, this assumption could be a case of confusing correlation with causation; rather, it is more likely that such countries tend to have more progressive policies that elected these highly-qualified women into positions of power in the first place, as well as public trust in current government officials, geographic and demographic advantages. Dr. Clare Wenham, Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy and Asha Herten-Crabb, PhD candidate at London School of Economics and Political Science recently released a blog unpacking this very phenomenon.

So what makes a good leader in global health, especially during tough times such as the COVID-19 pandemic? We as a WGH chapter recently had the privilege of facilitating a conversation on the concept of leadership in times of crisis as part of our launch series. On 18th May 2021, our esteemed speakers – Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Dame Sally Davies and moderator Poppy Jaman OBE – discussed their own experiences as global health leaders in this ongoing pandemic. For Sally, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and the UK’s Special Envoy on antimicrobial resistance, the importance of being visible to those you lead has been even more necessary during the era of working from home: Zoom meetings, while essential, are not enough. Simple acts such as checking in with colleagues one to one, being present around campus and even personal email reflections on life during lockdown can go a long way to create deeper connections with others. This is particularly true for international students, burned-out staff and those living alone, far from tangible human interactions, their loved ones and the ability to fully mourn the dearly departed as a physical community. Acknowledging that traditional leadership is not easily translated into the digital world means having more compassion for those who work with and for you. And for those who have had to be in the workplace almost every day, such as Soumya in her capacity as the World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist, just showing up every day to support your team and do your job speaks volumes to those around you.

However, Soumya also recalled instances earlier in her career where she remained silent in the face of open gender discrimination, when her ideas were dismissed but the same suggestions were praised when articulated by a male colleague. While letting go of ego in this manner is an admirable quality as it can mean the job gets done regardless of seeking accolades, this can hinder women’s career progression: we make up 75% of the healthcare workforce, yet occupy less than 25% of the most influential leadership positions. Occasions such as those described by Soumya resonate with many of us and can affect our sense of internal credibility as they reinforce the false notion that our voices as women – and indeed, women of colour – are not worthy of being listened to; this often manifests as the all-too-familiar Imposter Syndrome. This is likely to be why Sally stressed that it is even more important to make sure the quiet voices are heard during online calls: “they’re often the deepest and most thoughtful”. This is a great example of someone who uplifts the next generation of future leaders.

There is a saying coined by leadership author John Maxwell: “anyone can steer the ship, but the leader charts the course.” A leader is someone who can be looked up to, adapts decisively to changing scenarios, but also listens to those around them. Poppy – CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance – reminded us that failure is a part of leadership and there is a need to foster a culture of psychological safety for those we work with, so that everyone can freely speak their minds without fear of judgement or ridicule, from the most senior to the most junior in the (virtual) room. But in reality “leaders can be seen at all levels” as Sally mentioned, whether that is among mothers running their households or nurses leading a team during an emergency. We need to do better to recognise and reward less traditional examples of leadership, such as the unpaid labour of social care workers and mothers.

One other hallmark of a good leader is how they make room for those earlier in their careers. Co-authors of the book Slay in Your Lane interviewed Dr. Funke Abimbola about the different ways a good leader can support the professional development of those earlier in their careers. She described this as the triumvirate of mentoring, sponsorship and coaching. A mentor will support and offer advice; a sponsor actually recommends you for new opportunities; a coach gives you the tools you need to succeed with skill training. This may not necessarily be the same person but if you do find all these traits in someone you respect as a leader, you’ve struck gold. And with increasing opportunities for collaboration due to the reliance of online platforms, getting a foot in the door has become more accessible in the global health field.

Dr. Abimbola’s triumvirate

If you happen to be struggling to find such leaders to support your career progression, we at WGHUK are working on a mentorship programme for our members as a chance to learn from more experienced advisors and consultants. Mentorship is a reciprocal relationship in that the mentee also has something to give: whether that’s inspiration, a fresh perspective or even a different skill. As Poppy put it, “it is an honour and a privilege to break the barriers we have experienced ourselves”. And while some of the best qualities of a true leader can be seen in their protégés we must remember that the purpose of a good leader is not for them to train you to fill their shoes, but rather to equip you with the skills and confidence to walk boldly in your own. So the question of the day is: how will you break barriers by choosing to be a more effective leader to those who look up to you?

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