Systems leadership is about how you lead across boundaries – between organisations, places or sectors. Use this hub to learn about systems leadership.

Systems leadership: a beginner’s guide

What is systems leadership?

Systems leadership takes basic ideas about leadership behaviours, and uses them to show how to lead when you need to work across boundaries. When you need to go beyond your own organisation, or service, or area of expertise, and interact with others – often with very different priorities and points of view – systems leadership comes into its own.

Where does the idea come from?

Over the past fifty years, systems thinking has been used in physics, economics, social movements, and in evolutionary biology, as well as in leadership and management development.  From the 1980s onwards, it has been associated with ideas around adaptive leadership, particularly in the writings of Ronald Heifetz and Keith Grint. A comprehensive literature review citing many of the key thinkers in the field was published by the Virtual Staff College in 2013.

When is systems leadership relevant?

Systems leadership is particularly helpful when:

  • you’re dealing with large and seemingly intractable problems
  • you need to juggle multiple uncertainties
  • no one person or organisation can find or implement the solution on their own
  • you need to involve as many people’s energies, ideas, talents and expertise as possible.

These kinds of complex problems have been defined as ‘wicked’ issues, they have multiple causes and no single solution, and there is no real certainty or direction about what needs to be done. To solve these wicked issues, you can’t simply do what you’ve done before. You also need to recognise there will be knock-on effects whatever you do and that trade-offs will be necessary. People working in public services including health and social care, local authorities, housing associations, social workers, the voluntary sector, community groups, clinical commissioning groups and health and wellbeing boards are all coming up against wicked issues more and more. Fewer resources, increasing demand, greater complexity and higher expectations make for a ‘perfect storm’ of wicked issues.

What are the basic principles?

Systems leadership is distributed leadership; it works on the basis that you’re not a leader simply because of your job title or the letters after your name. Systems leadership is based on having a shared ambition, with the patient, or service user, in the centre. It means getting as many people involved around the table as possible. Systems leaders recognise that different people will be in the best position to provide leadership in different circumstances. So it goes beyond partnership or collaboration, because it’s not just about retaining your own power and authority while working with others – it’s about handing the leadership to others if that’s what’s needed. Systems leadership behaviours include:

  • focusing on outcomes and results rather than processes
  • basing the work on strong but honest relationships
  • allowing for experimentation – and therefore allowing for risk
  • being willing genuinely to listen to others and see their point of view
  • being able to adapt, going with ‘good enough’ approaches and building on them rather than waiting until you have the perfect solution.

What does it mean in practice?

There is a national systems leadership initiative in England, supported by the NHS, local government, public health, adult social care and children’s services.

The programme includes national and international research on ‘what works’ in systems leadership;  joint leadership development programmes, such as ‘Leadership for Change, where teams from different sectors learn about applying systems leadership to a wicked issue in their place; systems leadership development for public health professionals in their new roles, through the ‘Skills for Systems Leadership’ programme; and on-the-ground support for places, so that they can use systems leadership to integrate services and improve the health and wellbeing of the people who live there.

This place-based support is currently being provided to over forty places around the country through the ‘Systems Leadership – Local Vision‘ initiative, and the ‘Integrated Care and Support Pioneers‘ programme.

Alongside health and social care integration, the local programmes have involved issues such as reducing alcohol abuse, tackling social isolation and loneliness, improving dementia awareness and increasing levels of physical activity.

There is evidence that using systems leadership approaches has supported real change and progress.  Find out more about individual projects in our Project directory. Or read our report –  The Revolution will be Improvised – summarising the learning from the first wave of 25 Systems Leadership – Local Vision projects. Further evidence for the use of systems leadership achieving real results is also available in The Revolution will be Improvised Part II, released in late 2015. This publications draws on the findings from nearly forty Local Vision places to show what happened when systems leadership practices were used.

Systems leadership is also highlighted in the Integrated Care and Support Pioneer Programme’s Year 1 Report and Year 2 report. The case studies from the Islington and Worcestershire pioneers, in particular, demonstrate the value of systems leadership approaches.

How can I begin to use systems leadership in my area?

A good first step is to think about the kinds of factors that enable systems leadership to flourish, and how far these can be found where you are.  There’s a useful guide in the Virtual Staff College’s systems leadership Synthesis paper. There are also useful lessons – do’s and don’t’s – in The Revolution will be Improvised and The Revolution will be Improvised Part II.

If you would like to discuss how you can encourage systems leadership in your locality, contact us via this website or email debbie.sorkin@leadershipcentre.org.uk or john.jarvis@leadershipcentre.org.uk