Leadership in Action at the CDC

Posted 06.24.2011

Frieden-cdc Yesterday, I had the good fortune to follow Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, as a speaker to the leadership fellows of his agency.  His remarks were so fascinating that I was honestly a little disappointed when he wrapped up and it was time for me to speak. On the other hand, as the person who had been asked to deliver a keynote talk on leading at the next level, I couldn’t have had a better set-up than Dr. Frieden.

In his talk, Dr. Frieden did a great job of using stories to demonstrate to the fellows the impact of their work in the field of public health. Most of his stories emphasized the importance of gathering data to both define the problem you’re trying to solve and to measure your progress in solving it.  He also talked a lot about the importance of establishing human to human connection in leading people to make positive changes.

One story he told that really stuck with me was about the five years in he spent India earlier in his career working to rid the country of tuberculosis. Frieden seems like a pretty self aware guy and called himself out over how proud he was of the hours he put in working the TB problem. His typical day in the office, he said, was from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm with additional hours working from home.  As his time in India drew to a close, he was meeting with his counterpart from the Indian government for a final review of their progress. In their conversation, his colleague acknowledged all the hours Frieden put in but said that really wasn’t his most important contribution. Frieden said he took a little umbrage at that until his friend said, “Tom, the most important thing you’ve done is to give us hope.”

Frieden’s story and the rest of his remarks really hit home with me because they so clearly illustrated one of my favorite definitions of leadership. The idea is that leadership is  a two part job. The first part is to define reality. The second part is to offer hope.

That’s what the people of the CDC get to do for a living. As public health professionals, they collect and use data to define reality. Then, through action, communication, influence, collaboration and other ways they offer the hope of healthier lives.

When you think about your organization and your role in it, what are your opportunities to lead by defining reality and offering hope?