What might systems leadership be? And how does it relate to systems change? A happily tentative essay

Someone asked me ‘do you have a ‘Top 3′ recommended articles on systems leadership?’

This is my worst nightmare in many ways, because
a) it’s complicated, context-dependent, there’s so much out there
b) I’d like to give the consummate, ideal, and perfect answer – and the truth is, there’s a lot of good stuff out there (not enough of it mine, of course!), but the acceptable is unlikely to be competent, and the competent unlikely to be acceptable
c) I have a document review folder with almost 400 items, a core approach slide deck I pull from with 69 slides from 18 core approaches, and a lit review deck with 63 slides from 24 other core approaches – dependent on context.

Anyway, here’s an ‘essay’ at the tasks which is happily imperfect. I have immediately veered from ‘systems leadership’ (if there’s anything worse than trying to get sense from ‘systems leadership’ literature, try ‘complexity leadership’!) into ‘systems change’, since I’m more interested in helping things be better than in leaderification…

There are many and varied flavoured of system(s) leadership/change(s) concepts.
Here, I attempt to give a rough overview, each with more-or-less representative examples

Type one: systems leadership as a thing
• Less individualistic, more inclusive leadership
• Leading an organisation as a system / seeing an organisation as a system (mechanical, biological, social)
• A leader who sees and mobilises systems (Senge, UN)

Type two: systems leadership as an activity (which requires, nevertheless, a ‘different class of leader’) – this shades into systems change and systems convening:

• More likely to focus on purpose of change from outside ‘the system’ – funder, organisation, intervention purpose:
o Organisation within environment, including with ‘partners’ etc – (Hoverstadt and Loh, and health systems work UK)

  • System-of-interest with outcomes – often turning an unstructured/un-organised system into a structured/organised one – more likely an understand – plan – do (with some kind of review) purposive model – (Collective Action, Collaborate, Systems Stewardship, outcome-based commissioning)
  • Institutional system within an environment – (UK NHS and much mapping)
  • System-of-interest with complexity – ‘wicked problems’/messes etc (UK systems leadership in children’s services model – Public Value Theory, Grint’s Wicked Problems and Adaptive Leadership)
  • Multiple systems interacting, shaped purposively – (Systems Weaving, CoCreative, Systems Convening (though this is also broader))

Type two (b) or possible type three (more facilitative than leaderistic):
• More likely to focus on purpose of change emerging from *within* the system
o Whole swathes of futures/design ‘whole system’ or ‘representative of whole system’ co-creation approaches – (FutureSearch, Theory U)

  • Active ongoing learning dynamics in a system (Nora Bateson, David Ing)
  • Asset-based community development type approaches, mobilising/enabling those considered the ‘constituents’ of the system to chape change
  • Advocacy and support for network, collaborative, co-operation, peer, permaculture, and other alternative organisational forms

Oh, and a third or fourth category:
• ‘Systems innovation’, typically meaning a more entrepreneurial and less funded directive approach – but sometimes with elements of the whole-system outside-in systems change

If you’re lucky, any of the above may include some kind of complexity and/or multi-perspectival overlay – including critical challenge to values.

If unlucky, there’ll be glib talk of ‘root causes’ and ‘sustainability’, and no acknowledgement of ethical complexity or a shadow side.

Best and worst in my opinion:
• Worst form – static systems mapping and mechanistic intervention
• Also worst form – complexity woo, handwaving
• Best form, epistemological and ontological complexity (or, better still, non-dualist complexity), appreciation of fundamental human/systems/complexity/cybernetic laws, ethical considerations not mistaken for means, attention to ever-changing nature, contested power and ethical and other dynamics, multiple definitions of system-in-question and of leadership, practical action and triple-loop shared learning.

A few key pieces (erring to the mainstream and a true ‘systems leadership’ focus):
• Senge et al – the Dawn of System Leadership
See the system, generative conversation, co-creation

• Systems Leadership – Harvard Kennedy School
Individual, community, and system
• Convene and commit
• Look and learn
• Engage and energise
• Act with accountability
• Review and revise
• Ten tips for systems leaders

10 tips for systems leaders

Good practical stuff for coalition-building on systems for outcomes work

• The water of systems change
(For funders of ‘systems change’)
Structural, relationships, paradigms levels

• USAID GKI Systems-Leadership-Brief

Click to access 18.01.31-GKI-Systems-Leadership-Brief_USAID-FINAL.pdf

from http://globalknowledgeinitiative.org/
Good actors, linkages, environment model. Good overview but naïve ‘root cause’ element.

• Covid-19 and systems change: some reflections from the field
View at Medium.com
includes ten systemic practices

View at Medium.com

• David Ing et al – Systems Changes project

How do Systems Changes become natural practice?


• Three Horizons – International Futures Foundation and Graham Leicester

Key relevant key systems thinking networks:
• Illuminate/SIGNAL – building the field of systems change https://mailchi.mp/cf0bdef6497a/illuminate
• Systems Convening – Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner are writing a manual, and a good group has formed: https://groups.io/g/systems-convening / https://wenger-trayner.com/systems-convening/

What is systems change (due to be updated!)