Dr. Leslie Mancuso—President and CEO of Jhpiego—wants nurses to be seen for what they’ve always been: leaders in their own right, getting the recognition and the power in policy they’ve long deserved. And even while she has embraced new titles in her career (businessperson, advocate, entrepreneur) she still considers herself a nurse first and foremost. Leslie says that she is proud of her nurse background and her leadership of one of the few nurse-led non-governmental organizations operating worldwide. She hopes to see more nurses positioned as global leaders not only within health care teams and the nursing profession itself, but beyond—within the larger health systems space, running ministries, directing training institutions, deeply involved in the space around research, and in politics.

Leslie has dedicated much of her professional career to providing health solutions to individuals and communities in need and has worked to expand this support on a global scale. For more than 18 years, she has led Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University that builds health providers’ skills and develops systems that save lives and guarantee healthier futures for women and their families all over the world. She largely credits her nursing background for influencing leadership. She says, “The skills I learned as a nurse—the ability to assess and make sound decisions quickly, to stay calm under pressure, to innovate solutions—have served me well as a CEO.”

One experience has stayed close to Leslie’s heart and utilized her valuable nursing skills. Jhpiego had been working in Tanzania to improve the quality of maternal health but didn’t have the funding for facility renovations. “What I witnessed was an overcrowded ward with more patients than beds, and four women laboring on a single mattress on the floor. The surgical suite was not equipped nor were any staff trained for cesarean delivery. I knew all the provider training in the world wouldn’t make a difference for these women if we didn’t have beds, mosquito nets, and other essential supplies. Our team left committed to reinvigorate the facility and were able to find unrestricted money to renovate the maternity ward, which Tanzania’s Ministry of Health now designates as a model for the country,” she says. Now, every pregnant woman admitted to the ward goes through childbirth in her own bed. Nearby are two nursing stations and proper washrooms. Providers are no longer overwhelmed by too many patients and lack of space; they can give each patient the attention and high-quality care each mother needs.

From the time she was young, Leslie knew she wanted to be a nurse. Her mother first modeled the profession and remains a key support and mentor for Leslie to this day. This early influence set her professional path in motion, and Leslie earned her BSN from Southern Connecticut State University and went on to earn her MSN from Penn Nursing and her PhD in Education and Organizational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. “At Penn, I knew I would be exposed to some of the best nursing leaders in the world. They, in turn, exposed me to a much larger world of nursing opportunities that absolutely changed the course of my career and led me to where I am today.”

Leslie specialized in neonatal and pediatric intensive care because she liked working with families, helping them through—what for many—is the worst crisis they can imagine: a serious health issue for their child. “I felt I could provide the sensitivity and care that’s required in that incredibly delicate situation,” she says. “I was equally drawn to the rapid analysis that goes on in the ICU. As an ICU nurse, you must examine a patient and use every skill set you have—quickly!—to assess and treat. It’s incredibly invigorating and meaningful work.”

After matriculating at Penn Nursing, Leslie joined the School as a faculty member teaching Pediatric Critical Care and Nursing of Children. “I was taught by—and later worked alongside—some of the most extraordinary faculty, including Dr. Laura Hayman, who guided my development as a new instructor and faculty member. Penn was my first teaching experience out of graduate school, and I found the faculty, both the mentors and my colleagues, so willing to help, to listen, and to encourage each other’s professional growth,” she says. Leslie also credits Dean Emerita Claire Fagin, PhD, FAAN, RN, as impacting her life and being instrumental to who she is today. She was inspiring as a mentor and gave Leslie the advice that she still puts into practice today: “Leaders build leaders around them.”

While teaching at Penn Nursing, the non-profit Project Hope asked Leslie to be part of a consultancy for health professionals from the U.S., and she travelled to Costa Rica to help develop the curriculum for a program in critical care. That trip was followed by many others: China, Indonesia, Poland, and Nicaragua. During these visits Leslie discovered her life’s passion: doing whatever she could, using whatever talents she had to mitigate the tremendous suffering she witnessed.

She says, “These trips opened my eyes to the tragic, needless maternal and child deaths that result simply due to a lack of access to basic health care. And they opened my eyes to something else: I realized that I could greatly amplify the impact I was having as an ICU nurse on the global health stage. The key, even then, was helping countries to help themselves.”

After eight years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Leslie decided to join Project Hope full-time. She worked at the organization for 13 years, in various roles that included assistant director of nursing, deputy vice president, vice president, chief operating officer, and acting CEO. In 2002, Leslie joined Jhpiego, becoming the first nurse to lead the organization after 30 years of physician management. Together with her leadership team, they have grown the organization from a small, domestic organization that works internationally to a large, truly international health organization. Innovation has been key and is part of the fabric of Jhpiego, with nurses front and center to their work.

Leslie points out that if ever there was a time to see the innovative spirit of nurses, it’s now—during the worst health crisis in a century. She credits nurses with being drivers of Jhpiego’s COVID-19 response from day one, innovating care to protect themselves and their patients. She believes the nursing workforce will continue to drive innovations in health long after the pandemic ends. “As we look to the future, nurses must be prepared to use technologies in a variety of ways. They must be adept at working in inter-professional teams. And they must play an even greater role in implementation science,” she says. Leslie would like to continue focusing her work on global health—furthering the mission to ensure that where women and families live does not determine if they live—and continue to be a vocal advocate for the nursing profession. She believes there is still much work to be done to include nurse voices where they belong—in the highest levels of global health—and that nurses must be at the table when all decisions are being made.

Random Fact: “I love sports! I grew up with three brothers and parents who loved sports and to this day, any sports I can watch, I will. I especially enjoy watching football,” Leslie says.