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A Conversation with Natalie S. Burke about Facilitative Leadership

By on February 16, 2017



Some people leave a lasting impression. They live beyond their comfort zones, their vulnerability reminding you that if you don’t try, you almost certainly will fail. They speak their truth authentically and passionately, paving a way for you to search more deeply for your own. And they lead with a spirit of abundance that cultivates the assets within each of us and among all of us, compelling you to pay your generosity forward more often, and more urgently. Natalie Burke is one of those people.

Natalie and I first met about seven years ago when our organizations were working in Port Towns, Maryland to help build community leaders’ capacity to improve health outcomes by addressing the social determinants of health. Today she is President and CEO of CommonHealth ACTION. Natalie is known for building and sustaining successful interactions with leaders and innovators across sectors. As an advisor to corporate leaders and communities aspiring to change, Natalie helps develop solutions, plans, and common language necessary to succeed in making the world a better, healthier place. As a strategist, she focuses on the connective tissue that forms organizations and how to strengthen it. And as a facilitator, she cultivates spaces for exchanging ideas that spark action.

We recently re-connected to reflect on the progress we’ve made and what it means to be a leader.

Natalie, it’s so good to catch up with you. When we first met in 2010, the concept of health equity was just starting to be discussed more broadly. What are you most proud of when you think about the progress made since then? And what makes you hopeful about the future?

In public health we’ve spent decades repurposing old solutions to solve persistent and emerging problems. The focus on social determinants of health (SDOH) has amplified the push for effective multi-sector collaboration. The key word in that sentence is “effective.” That focus requires leaders from health and non-health sectors to play a role in the production of the public’s health. I say “production” because production requires intent, and it is time to be intentional about our nation’s health. Multi-sector collaborations have been in play for decades, but too often individual leaders lacked the skills, content knowledge, and self-awareness necessary to create and sustain change.

As I’ve worked to develop leaders’ abilities to address the SDOH, one thing has become crystal clear: regardless of sector or discipline, effective leadership to improve health requires a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and the ability to institutionalize all three. Bringing “unusual suspects” to the realization that their decisions, behaviors, and actions produce health outcomes is always a humbling moment. Cultivating personal and professional perspective transformation regarding EDI is difficult, powerful, and inspirational. The demand for both gives me great hope for the future and for a culture of health.

And you now have an even more significant opportunity to help cultivate that transformation! CommonHealth ACTION was chosen in 2015 to co-develop and co-lead the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Leaders national program. Congratulations! What has most surprised you as you’ve worked with this diverse group of leaders? What have you learned about your own leadership?

The leaders in the program challenge mainstream assumptions about leadership. Some are not traditional, “born leaders” but instead have stepped into leadership roles in response to unjust conditions they see in the world. They demonstrate that people who will lead the country to a culture of health might be in their 20s or their 60s. They might do it with the quiet strength of an introvert or by leading out loud like an extrovert. They are the people who will innovate and find new solutions to old problems. No two leaders are the same, and I think it’s their uniqueness that will contribute to their success.

Directing the program has inspired me to hold a mirror up to my own leadership. In my 20s and 30s, as a woman leader I was pressured to temper my strength and limit my voice. Over time, that became my modus operandi because it made other people more comfortable. Now I realize that to lead at my fullest potential, I have to engage as my whole self and accept that for some people that is exactly who they need me to be. Others will cringe at my thoughts, decisions, and feelings. Regardless, I am settling into the leader I am supposed to be. 

I’ve noticed you have become a regular blogger, and I’ve been inspired by your thought leadership. Your blogging profile says you’re “unapologetically leading out loud.” Why I Won’t Give You Ten Tips to Manage Your Privilege is one of my favorite examples of this! I want to thank you, because it’s prompted me to initiate some important conversations about privilege–especially among my white peers. What prompted you to write about complex, challenging topics in such a courageous and vulnerable way?

Thank you! The country is at a crossroads and it is a painful place. To preserve our social fabric and ensure an equitable and healthy future, we must focus on privilege and oppression as the underpinnings of the –isms (e.g., racism, sexism, and classism). They reflect the value we place on each other based on social identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc.).

In fact, over the past 100 years we have seen how shifts in our values led to previously oppressed people experiencing privilege. African American men gaining the right to vote (1870), black and white women gaining the right to vote (1920), Native Americans gaining citizenship (1924), and the legalization of same-sex marriage (2015) all indicate shifts in how people with power value certain social identities. As more people recognize that we choose to express our values by privileging some and oppressing others, I hope they will work to create an equitable society by transforming themselves, our culture, and our systems. 

We can either choose to maintain the status quo or change it. I choose to change it. We have to say the words others are afraid to say, be uncomfortable, and talk about privilege. I hope to raise awareness, educate, challenge, and give people the language necessary to engage in the difficult conversations we need to have without shame or blame. At the same time, writing about it has helped me to explore my own privilege, which is necessary for me to be the best leader possible. I truly believe that remarkable leaders know that change and innovation live at the edge of chaos, where the way is dimly lit and discomfort is the place to settle in. I hope we can all become remarkable.

Sarah Strunk

Sarah Strunk |

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.

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