Next WHO Director- General: hear the angels while fighting the wolves

Much has been written about the technical, political, and managerial skills the new Director-General (DG) of WHO needs and which issues should be prioritised. After serving under three WHO DGs, I believe that the next DG should also have personal qualities of courage, independence, decisiveness, integrity, and vision.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was WHO Director-General from 1998 to 2003, showed courage, independence, and decisiveness and epitomises the call to “speak without scruple and act without fear”. During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis, she pressed China for more information but when they did not provide this, she issued the travel advisory anyway. She also showed courage to take on the Member States as she pressed for major reform of WHO’s organisational and governance structures. Despite strong opposition from the tobacco industry, she paved the way for the negotiations for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first evidence-based global health treaty. Importantly, she had the vision to place WHO on a firm
knowledge foundation by establishing the evidence-informed policy cluster.

Lee Jong-wook, WHO Director- General from 2003 to 2006, had the vision to implement the 3 by 5 initiative to improve access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) resulting in major progress in mitigating the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the face of strong opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, he showed the courage and conviction of the moral high ground WHO held by supporting the establishment of the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP). He showed integrity in acknowledging the weaknesses of WHO guidelines and acted accordingly to substantially improve the process into one that is strongly evidence-based today, and also led the negotiations for the much needed revision of the three-decade old International Health Regulations.

The next DG needs to recognise and uphold the strengths of the WHO and effectively use the power of his or her office to full advantage. In a tribute to JW Lee, World Bank President Jim Yong
Kim described Lee as someone who can “hear the angels while fighting the wolves. He could run with the wolves: the tough, self-serving ruthless bureaucrats and politicians who often crossed his path. He knew how they thought, often before they knew themselves, and he could run circles around them. But he also heard the angels who never let him forget the pain and suffering of the poor”.

With global health facing uncertain times and instability, a new leader of WHO imbued with key leadership and personal qualities, who can “fight the wolves while hearing the angels”, will
serve the organisation well and ensure improved health and health equity for all people.


This piece was published in The Lancet on 14 February 2017.

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