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June 24, 2013

Five Minutes on Leadership

Rebecca Perl, Vital Strategies Associate Director of Communications and Special Projects, was asked to give a short talk on the qualities of leadership to international tobacco control advocates at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on June 3rd. The group was in Baltimore for a two-week training. The transcript is published here.

First, I would just like to say that I came to tobacco control work via journalism. I worked at the US’s public radio station – it’s called NPR – and I covered tobacco there. I worked there for seven years and then I became a tobacco advocate – using many of the skills I had learned in journalism, and tossing others.

I guess if I had to pick one word to describe what’s most important in tobacco control it would be “perseverance.”

I have persevered because I never doubted that we (the tobacco control advocates) were right and that they ( the tobacco industry) were wrong. It was crystal clear to me, as big as day; they are evil, and we are good.

So I never cared if people thought “Oh, tobacco, that’s no big deal” because I knew it was a big deal, I knew tobacco kills half of its users and that these early, terrible deaths were 100 percent preventable. I knew it was a menace, I knew that when people said things like, “well, you have to die of something,” that it was the tobacco industry’s successful marketing strategies talking.

Some of my friends don’t quite get what I do.They look at me funny or glaze over when I talk about tobacco control, but that’s okay. I have always been completely secure about this battle. They don’t have to understand my motives.

I also enjoy the David and Goliath aspect of this battle. I think of myself like a small, determined dog biting at the heels of this international giant – but slowing the giant down, taking the spring out of his step and one day taking out his eye, felling him.

This is satisfying work not only because it’s right but also because it’s winnable, because we largely know what to do to reduce smoking prevalence – the things you will learn about this week: increasing taxes, smoke-free places, ad bans, and public education.

I think of it much like following a recipe for a lemon, seven-layer cake. If you follow it carefully, it will come out delicious. Once you have perfected the recipe, there is plenty of time to be creative and to add new ingredients, which is also important.

So maybe that’s simple-minded; maybe it’s not as challenging as a problem like obesity, where we don’t have the answers or a playbook. But it works for me. I know I am not wasting my time. And I hope it will for you too.

One other thought – it’s critical that we work together. Especially on the global level, because it’s simply not acceptable for the tobacco control victories of the developed world to happen at the expense of the developing world.

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