Professor and Chair of the CDC Foundation’s Board of Directors, Dr. Leah Devlin Shares the Biggest Risk She’s Taken as a Leader and the Greatest Reward

By George T. Roberts, Jr., MHA, FACHE, NACCHO President and Chief Executive Officer of the Northeast Texas Public Health District

Leah Devlin, DDS, MPH, currently serves as a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Health Policy and Management at The Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was recently appointed to Chair of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation Board of Directors. Dr. Devlin has been a board member since 2012 and boasts over 30 years of experience in public health.

Dr. Devlin served as state health director in North Carolina from 2001 to 2009 and previously held positions as deputy state health director and health director for Wake County, NC. Additionally, Dr. Devlin has provided consultant services to RTI International, the Milbank Fund, and the Aspen Institute.

Dr. Devlin’s presidential leadership spans across three public health organizations—the North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors, North Carolina Public Health Association, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Below, Dr. Delvin shares the biggest risk she’s taken as a public health leader and discusses how her previous leadership experience will inform her role as Chair of the CDC Foundation’s Board of Directors.

How has your previous experience in the public health field influenced your teaching style as a professor at The Gillings School of Global Public Health?

The amazing students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are intensely interested in how public health really works in the field. Team-based approaches, coalition building, health communications, policy development, and the science of public health practice are all exciting to them.  They want to know about how we handle equity issues, ethics, the allocation of limited resources, and how to handle “hot topics.” Students want to explore various career paths as they continue to develop their academic skills.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in a leadership position, and what was the outcome?

Probably, the biggest risk I’ve taken in my career was when our small leadership team at the Wake County Health Department in North Carolina, located in one of the largest tobacco-producing states in the country, banned smoking in the health department with a simple memo to staff. It was 1986 and it was the first public action I officially took as the newly appointed, 31-year-old, local health director. We were the first local health department in NC to take such an unheard-of action. This decision made the front page of the newspaper the next day as it was quite controversial to say the least. My entire career as a local health director could have been derailed right at the start. I was fortunate to have continued support from health and elected leaders, and our local health department went on to be a leader in community tobacco control policy in our state.

What would you say is the most rewarding and frustrating thing about being a leader in the public health profession?

In thinking about the most rewarding aspects of being in public health leadership roles, successful capacity and policy development at the state level must be at the top. The work that we did in public health emergency response after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that began that following month in October was transformative for NC public health and our partners. These efforts laid the foundations for addressing SARS, monkey pox, West Nile Virus, and pan flu all the way through to more recent efforts in Ebola and Zika. We also built on the lessons learned from responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic over the past 20 years.

One frustrating aspect for all of us in public health is having the science on a critical public health issue and the coalitions in place to move the needle but not being able to gain traction with appointed and elected officials as a priority to secure funding for programs or health policy that will have impact. It is difficult to overcome being the “quiet miracle”—prevention isn’t visible and oftentimes when we do our best work, nothing happens.

How will your previous experience as a president of three active public health organizations and a former state health director inform your leadership as Chair of the CDC Foundation’s Board of Directors?

Three aspects of my career directly relate to work of the CDC Foundation. First, the CDC Foundation was established by Congress 25 years ago to create public/private partnerships to advance the critical work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both locally and globally. I have spent my entire career building strategic and vitally important partnerships.

Secondly, having been in leadership roles at these three organizations and having served on other boards, I can fully appreciate the importance of having a strong board and strong CEO to lead the board.  We clearly have those assets at the CDC Foundation. In addition, the incredible leadership opportunities I had at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials gave me a greater experience in working with other states, with Congress, and federal agencies.

Third, the mission of the CDC Foundation is clearly aligned with the missions of public health in state and local health departments and at UNC where I have spent my career. The Foundation engages in a broad range of issues such as maternal and child health, tobacco, infectious disease, and opioids, as well as participates in global health security and improving data systems for the nation. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to participate in the work of the CDC Foundation. I invite you all to join with the Foundation in supporting the incredible efforts of our flagship public health institution—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

To share your story of transformational leadership or to recommend a leader to be highlighted, please contact Taylarr Lopez, NACCHO Communications Specialist, at tlopez@naccho.org.