Global public health leadership and what it means not only for the health of the organisation but also for each one of us.

The WHO needs a public health person not a politician to lead itA WHO staff talks to a backyard chicken owner following an outbreak of avian influenza H5N1 in Serpong; Photo: WHO/Jonathan Perugia
Voices Health leadership Sunday, May 07, 2017 - 17:54

In less than two weeks, Member States of the World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet to elect a new Director-General (DG). I take this opportunity to share my views and experiences about global public health leadership what it means not only for the health of the organisation but also for each one of us.

Dr Halfdan Mahler was DG of the WHO when I joined the organisation in 1983. Those were the glorious days of high staff morale and a huge team spirit, when we all felt that we were engaged in something really worthwhile under his leadership.  He made us feel that each one of us mattered. Dr Mahler was to be seen and greeted in the corridors of WHO any day, listening and talking to staff high and low, tie-less and jacket-less and in a short-sleeved shirt, and queuing for his lunch in the old crowded cafeteria¬ł plastic tray in hand. He was one of us in every sense of the word.

However junior you were, you never knew when he might arrive in your office, sit himself down and ask you exactly what you were doing that day, how you thought you could make a difference to WHO and to improving public health in the world. He was absolutely inspirational, he always had suggestions for you, he was amazingly informal and never made you feel any difference in rank or intellect. Sometimes I used to wonder how it was possible for him to lead the world's most important health organisation while at the same time carrying his entire team along effortlessly. He made it seem easy and I believe that was because he had clarity of thought and genuineness of purpose.

For those who may not know of Dr Mahler, he was a Danish physician who was head of the WHO from 1973 to1988. He was a legend in public health and played a critical role in shaping the landmark Alma Ata declaration that laid the foundation stone and developed the strategy for Health for All by the year 2000.

Dr Mahler liked to drop in to the smoking rooms in WHO's basement (times have changed since and they no longer exist) used by the chauffers, huissiers and security guards, have a chat with the smokers and ask them for suggestions on improving WHO. He would ask them what was wrong, what didn't work, and, no holds barred, in their opinion what programmes weren't working well. He believed that people who ran the organisation, it's silent soldiers, were also some of the best sources of information and knowledge on how programmes could be better run. People might find this strange today, but Dr Mahler was a people's DG.

On one memorable occasion, word went round that the DG wanted to speak to all staff members. We rushed down to stand together on the marble steps leading to the lower-ground floor (we were fewer staff in those days, but still it was a crush). Dr Mahler described the health crises in many of the world's poorest countries, the endemic diseases, the growing threats to health and, with pride outlined WHO's programmes and strategies to combat these health emergencies. He told us that the expected funding for the coming year had not arrived, there was a short-fall in the budget and we would have to manage with what was in the kitty. There was pin-drop silence as he spoke - I remember it like it was yesterday.  A charismatic leader, he spoke with conviction, care and empathy.

Then came his appeal to staff:

Were we all willing to work that bit harder, to put in the extra effort to still deliver the health programmes WHO had committed to deliver to our Member Countries, but with the diminished budget? Can I ask whether you are all behind me in this, are you with me in making this commitment, he asked? There came a spontaneous burst of approval, shouts of "Yes", hands raised, colleagues started to stamp their feet on the marble steps. It was almost a riot. He had got his answer.

We all knew Dr Mahler.  He was real, he was authentic, a genuine public health man with field experience, hands-on hard knowledge about graft in many countries, no artifice and a genuine human being. He was not a politician, he was not a political appointment, he was not a rarely encountered figurehead, scarcely glimpsed by staff and never in the cafeteria. Bring back his kind of leadership to WHO, it needs it more than ever.

(The author is a former staff member who wants WHO to find its past glory.)

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