The importance of leadership in bringing about change to improve health and well-being is increasingly emphasized — especially with the shift to SDGs — and there is now a need and opportunity to act to strengthen leadership for health. In November 2014, at the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, the Alliance set out to understand how leaders define and qualify leadership by asking a selected group of leaders in public health a single question: ‘What are key attributes of leaders that create effective health systems?’

In 2015, a survey was conducted across 65 countries and in-depth interviews were carried out with 22 prominent leaders, touching upon various components of leadership for health, ranging from the make-up of teams and organizational culture, to the use of evidence and the role of a guiding vision. While key individual traits are useful and even necessary in creating good leaders, they are not sufficient. The role of context, the reciprocal influence actors have upon one another’s interests and priorities, and the enabling environments within the health eco-system are important considerations in understanding, supporting and creating leadership that addresses the needs of the population in future-thinking health systems. Strengthening leadership in health requires a focus on ensuring an eco-system that enables participation from diverse actors, nurtures debates and provides an opportunity for all actors to assert their leadership potential, as the need arises, to the benefit of improved health-system performance.