A year ago, I had never even heard of Malcolm Baldrige, the Baldrige Award, or Communities of Excellence 2026. I had just begun my position working at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health when the opportunity presented itself to work with a group of our Masters students on their journey as Kruse Scholars.
My professional experience and academic training is in the area of community engagement, non-profit strategy and social impact. My work has been in organizations that were small enough that no matter the level of “leader” my title told me I was, I have always engaged in boots-on-the-ground work with and for the communities I was serving. I spent years unlearning all I thought I knew about traditional, positional leadership in order to succeed in this arena. My working leadership model is one of authentic collaboration, knowing that the best leaders arise with and without titles, executive pay, resources, and/or power.
When Lowell Kruse and I first had a conversation about the Kruse Scholars, I realized that advising this group of students would challenge my own notions of community leadership, engagement and change. So last fall I began to dig in and orient myself to Baldrige and COE. Brian Lassiter, President of the Performance Excellence Network and Board Member of COE, explained that much of the work we were engaging in was about building forums to innovate across sectors. Now this was language I could understand! The Baldrige method is not an unproven strategy, Lowell assured me. It has been adopted by 120 countries in the world. Six sectors of the US economy now use it. The Baldrige framework has been successfully applied to organizations large and small, from giant, multi-national corporations to small, rural school districts. The magic is in the questions that is asks, not in a prescription for excellence. And yet, I hear my own hesitation about how useful Baldrige is in a community context reflected in the voices of our students. How can a framework that places great value on the role of senior leaders be applied to communities with all of their complexity and nuance?
Luckily, the Baldrige questions are what makes this such an apt project for our graduate students. As their advisor, I can encourage the Kruse scholars to engage deeply in the questions. I want them to push past their assumptions about leadership. I want them to think deeply about how change is best inspired in a community or an organization. In the coming months, we’ll be escaping from the rabbit hole of academic dialogue and moving into actionable strategy, talking with leaders of Baldrige award-winning organizations, and asking ourselves how to apply what we’re hearing at the community level. I want them to apply these ideas and imagine how they, individually and collectively, will engage in transforming communities, no matter the sector they work in or the business title behind their name.
Already, with just a basic understanding of the framework, our Kruse Scholars are inspiring me with their ideas about how they intend to take COE and Baldrige into their professional work. They speak of alignment, measurement, strategy grounded in community.
“I aim to bring the work of Communities of Excellence into a Health Impact Assessments context. Health Impact Assessments similarly require the collaboration of stakeholders from all sectors and from communities to engage in conversations around the intersections of education, transportation, health, criminal justice, infrastructure, and all other aspects that shape the community. I hope to utilize the Communities of Excellence Framework in conjunction with Health Impact Assessments to frame the work of other sectors in a way that recognizes how it will affect all aspects of the community, including health.” – Amy Jones
“Too often, I think scientists, policymakers, and leaders in industry and the community may be working toward the same goal, but are not working in alignment. I have learned that optimization of resources is possible on the community level, and can be used not only to improve health outcomes, but to also close gaps in health disparities.” – Andrea Stoesz
“I have already started having conversations with many healthcare leaders in this country centered on the idea of communities of excellence. It isn’t always well received, however continuing to spread this idea may become a catalyst for change in the future. … We should sit on the boards of organizations in other sectors of the community to help advocate for change that will help the community excel. That is something I plan to do as I continue on my journey as a healthcare leader.” – Alla Wazwaz
Change is hard. Our communities have significant, deeply entrenched problems that are hard to define, hard to solve. As their advisor, I’m pushing our group members to dig deep. There’s no sugar-coating in our discussions. This is not easy work.
The Kruse Scholars program is a challenging exercise in imagination, creativity and critical analysis. As future healthcare and public health leaders, our students will be uniquely positioned to continue the conversation and inspire the hard work of improving performance in the communities where they live and work. This group is up for the challenge.