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Understanding Difference is a Key to Success for Young Leaders in Global Health

September 06, 2016 | Stacy Terrell, Global Health Fellows Program II | This post first appeared on the Global Health Fellows Program II blog.

What skills are necessary to successfully lead others in an increasingly complex global health environment? This question is one which many leaders of the Global Health Bureau of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) might ask on a regular basis to ensure the workforce is equipped for the challenges faced worldwide. Recently, a much younger audience was guided by this question during the GlobeMed Leadership Institute, which brought together over 130 college student leaders with a passion for global health from across the country. A key focus of GHFP-II is to support USAID in developing the next generation of global health professionals that more closely resembles the American people and if Leadership Institute, hosted by partner organization GlobeMed was any indication, we are well on our way.

Taking a life cycle approach to workforce development, GHFP-II works with partners including GlobeMedGlobal Health Corps, and complimentary partner PHI's FACES for the Future Coalition to expand access to Global Health resources and work experiences as early as high school. Through GlobeMed, GHFP-II directly connects undergraduates interested in Global Health with career resources and overseas work experience early in their careers to help them get a head start in their Global Health careers. Former Global Health Corps Fellow Nicole Maddox’s experiences in Zambia adapting to the local culture, language, and government protocols enabled her to successfully analyze effectiveness of services provided to HIV/AIDS patients in country. Advice she received from Dr. Sharon Rudy, GHFP-II Program Director, "Don’t Judge, just notice" remains a guiding principle in her work within Zambia. These early career interventions help USAID increase the diversity of its workforce by providing experienced, well-trained, culturally competent leaders now who will be future early, mid and senior level professionals combatting global health challenges like HIV/AIDS.

This particular leadership development event featured leadership case studies, discussions of the intersection of social justice and global health, strategic chapter planning, internal and external communication, and guidance on effective partnerships for an intense skills building weekend to support these campus based chapters. Through experiences like the Leadership Institute, these participants gain the competencies, skills, and relationships needed to be successful 21st century leaders for global health and this has proven monumental in preparing them for this work.

Cultural Competence and Building Effective Relationships

David Godsted, Deputy Director of GHFP-II served as a Keynote Speaker for the leadership development training which lasted a full weekend. His session emphasized one competency in particular that is paramount for success in Global Health: Interpersonal Effectiveness. Sharing his experience of almost 10 years living in the Middle East and almost 20 in organizational development, students connected with David’s first-hand adventures in gaining cultural competence.

The 130 leaders gathered at Leadership Institute were highly engaged and David invited them to share their own mishaps in cultural competence as a way to learn and grow as a group through shared experiences. This group of students represents the diversity of the American college experience, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), and bring their own unique perspectives to build from. One student recalled a time visiting someone’s home in Thailand and not realizing everyone had taken off their shoes and when hers remained on she inadvertently offended the entire group. Another student shared that a planned project improving land in the Dominican Republic would have made the community think they were trying to take over the land. Their group had to change the intended project at the last minute to avoid upsetting the community.

GHFP-II Deputy Director David Godsted and Lead for Diversity and Communications Stacy Terrell with leaders from San Francisco State University

David also utilized a photo of a young woman in Yemen and asked the students to give their immediate reactions to it. The photo provoked a variety of very different, honest responses that were grounded in the students personal experiences. This exercise offered a glimpse into the complexities of our reactions as humans to encountering difference and how these reactions complicate our ability to effectively lead.

Why is Interpersonal Effectiveness Critical to Leadership?

Many of the barriers faced by effective leaders are a result of a lack of understanding of another culture and its norms, assumptions about cultures or people, and self-confidence that as a leader you already know what you need to know about a given group. So many of the mishaps new leaders face could be better navigated if we understood these barriers as leaders at the undergraduate level and carried them through to professional careers in any arena. David emphasized that it is critical to understand your own unconscious bias in order to navigate interactions with others, particularly when working in small groups common to global health work overseas. David stated, "When homogenous groups talk about something often it becomes a universal truth for that group." As leaders, David implored students not to avoid tough topics. "Overcoming bias does not come naturally. It takes patience and hard work."

Student Leaders from Howard University

Key takeaways: Overcoming barriers to interpersonal effectiveness

  1. Acknowledge your bias.

  2. Be mindful of your communication style.

  3. Be mindful of how decisions are made.

  4. Be mindful of how different groups approach conflict.

Through these examples David provided the students with real life reminders of the complexities of working in any environment where difference exists. Approaching any group with respect is a key start for any leader.

Stacy Terrell writes for PHI's Global Health Fellows Program II blog.