Leading with Compassion: Shaping the Next Generation of Global Health Fighters

In the midst of a global pandemic and the various national responses to it, we’ve collectively seen that leadership comes in many forms and is crucial to managing change effectively. Country leaders demonstrating equity-driven, evidence-based approaches that prioritize the vulnerable have seen success in their fight against COVID-19. Leaders choosing to put the economy over their people – through delayed lockdowns and premature reopening of businesses –  have seen mounting case numbers and terrifying death tolls. Others using their often-substantial networks to disseminate damaging misinformation now find themselves accountable for innocent lives lost. More recently, lack of global solidarity between leaders is perpetuating vaccine nationalism, and carving out ever-greater rifts between rich and poor. In times like these, leadership should be the glue that holds us together. 

To have a hope of meeting and exceeding targets towards global SDGs, we need to think about leadership differently – as a critical tool to reverse social inequities, repair fragile health systems, and influence policymakers to start putting the vulnerable at the center of decisions. The good news is that leadership is not necessarily something innate or inherited for the privileged few. In fact, it can be a learnt behaviour with the right training encompassing communication and advocacy skill building, people and finance management, and tools to motivate and empower others.

Whilst many medical schools have traditionally seen leadership skills building an ‘add-on’ to clinical practice, UGHE makes leadership and management integral to all curricula, recognizing it as key to driving large-scale systemic change for the future. Assistant Professor Melany Rabideau is part of this mission to produce the next generation of global health leaders, spearheading the Masters in Global Health Delivery leadership curriculum at UGHE. A proven ‘systems thinker’, her work focuses on transforming practices, improving processes and designing for quality through an equity lens. 

Arriving in Rwanda in mid 2020, she recalls her first impressions of the country as one of ‘resilience, authenticity and grace’. She sees the students she teaches on Butaro Campus as already leaders in their own right, with her role to ‘meet them where they’re at, and provide them the tools, connections and resources with which to identify leadership opportunities. In the classroom, our goal is to learn from and with each other.’ She describes leadership training at UGHE as a means of translating ambitions into actionable steps that help each student permeate the often unseen barriers and boundaries to personal and professional growth. Each student’s leadership journey is unique but grounded by a devotion to life long learning as the common thread. 

She acknowledges that there is a lack of African representation across global health fields, but makes clear that ‘this is strictly not a people problem’. Rather, she explains, the gap lies in the deficit of opportunities available to African professionals, perpetuated by existing colonial structures, gender biases, and inequitable research models that continue to give unjust advantage, exposure and funding to professionals from the global north. Systems-led leadership training is one solution to addressing these inequitable structures. ‘To fix global problems, you first need to get into the mechanics of global systems.’ explains Melany. ‘We train our students to think of the world as a collection of governing systems which, when understood and acted upon, create sustainable change that is not just contingent on the people existing today’. 

What has become starkly apparent during the pandemic is that leaders acting along solely personal agendas have failed in their national response by driving people apart in a time when we should be coming together. For leadership is built on collaborative efforts. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on every sector – whether health, education, infrastructure, politics or the economy – and affected every social level from the community level up. Strong leadership is about consolidating these often-siloed sectors, and making community members, faith-based leaders, and district leaders stakeholders in national-level decision-making. ‘The power of leadership is the ability to make a coalition to implement new things and see the benefits of change.’ says Melany. ‘A lot of what is going on in the world requires people to collaborate across borders – you simply can’t do that without leadership that encourages and facilitates this solidarity, and that leverages the ways we are more similar than different’. 

Melany talks about ‘intentionality’ in leadership and leadership training, countering the belief by some that it is an ambiguous concept. ‘Students sometimes associate senior figures they’ve met with what it means to be a leader.’ she reflects. ‘Whilst it’s important to have mentors and role models, we must also think of leadership as a personal journey towards being the best version of yourself.’ And, she explains, this isn’t necessarily in reference to expertise or experience within a given field. Rather, it focuses on training people to see the potential in others, and create processes and productive environments with which to encourage and sharpen that potential. 

Supported by UGHE’s intensive leadership training, our network alumni are already contributing at high level to health systems globally, spanning advisory roles to Ministers of Health, running community health worker programs, and managing projects within global organizations such as the World Health Organization. Yet effective leadership training can also start at an early age. Melany’s current venture – Little Readers & Leaders Rwanda – is a beautifully illustrated book series aiming to shape young readers into future leaders through universal leadership lessons, and using Rwanda as its editorial backdrop. ‘Making leadership lessons digestible through the powerful mechanism of art and imagery is so important to us’, explains Melany who has worked with a Rwandan translator and illustrator to produce the series. ‘We’re proud to highlight universal leadership lessons in the Rwandan child’s image, using the concept of mirrors and windows. We hope the books will encourage Rwandan children to see a mirror of themselves in the little leaders the books depict, and for children outside Rwanda to see a window of opportunity to learn something new about this incredible country that leads by example’. 

Leadership training is one of the most powerful solutions we have in understanding and responding to the increasingly complex world we live in and, if taught holistically, can help cater to the growing demands on health professionals of the future. Melany’s definition of good leadership training promotes ‘the intersectionality of good intent while being more curious than certain, an equity agenda, valuing people, a focus on systems, and the ability to leverage data in decision making’,  principles she describes as a ‘privilege’ to teach in UGHE’s classrooms. 


Little Readers & Leaders Rwanda is a poetic picture book series shaping little readers into future leaders as they read their way around Rwanda with universal leadership lessons for every child. The first book in the series is available online through Amazon. For every book sold, a book will be donated to the children of Rwanda.