Background Public health leaders have been criticized for their policy stances, relationships with governments and failure to train the next generation. New approaches to the identification and training of public health leaders may be required. To inform these, lessons can be drawn from public health 'superheroes'; public health leaders perceived to be the most admired and effective by their peers. Methods Members and Fellows of the UK Faculty of Public Health were contacted via e-newsletter and magazine and asked to nominate their 'Public Health Superhero'. Twenty-six responses were received, nominating 40 different people. Twelve semi-structured interviews were conducted. Thematic analysis, based on 'grounded theory', was conducted. Results Five leadership 'talents' for public health were identified: mentoring-nurturing, shaping-organizing, networking-connecting, knowing-interpreting and advocating-impacting. Conclusions Talent-based approaches have been effective for leadership development in other sectors. These talents are the first specific to the practice of public health and align with some aspects of existing frameworks. An increased focus on identifying and developing talents during public health training, as opposed to 'competency'-based approaches, may be effective in strengthening public health leadership. Further research to understand the combination and intensity of talents across a larger sample of public health leaders is required.
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© The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Faculty of Public Health.