Systems Leadership Rapid Review by Harry Begg – GOV.UK


Systems Leadership Rapid Review by Harry Begg – GOV.UK

Research and analysis

Systems Leadership Rapid Review by Harry Begg

Published 15 December 2020


  1. 1.Introduction and Background
  2. 2.What is systems leadership?
  3. 3.What does social science literature tell us about the potential for leadership and leader development to instil positive change for complex policy problems?
  4. 4.What behaviours and capabilities do effective leaders and organisations exhibit when they are tackling systemic issues?
  5. 5.What does the literature tell us about the conditions of success and failure where systems-based approaches are used?
  6. 6.State of existing research and recommendations for future work
  7. 7.References
  8. 8.Appendix 1
  9. 9.Appendix 2

Print this page

1. Introduction and Background

This is a rapid review of the literature on the concept of systems leadership conducted for the National Leadership Centre in January 2020. The project has been delivered on an aggressive timeline and is not intended as a full systematic review of scholarly and other relevant literature. Instead, it is a scoping of the literature which uses a combination of academic databases and qualitative scholarly initiative to understand how scholars and practitioners are answering the following questions:

  • What is systems leadership and how is it defined in relation to other approaches to leadership?
  • What are the conditions of success and failure observed in public service delivery where systems approaches are used?
  • What behaviours and practices do effective leaders and organisations exhibit when they are tackling systemic issues?
  • How might these behaviours and practices be learned, encouraged and institutionalised? And how can factors leading to failure be limited?

1.1 This review is organised as follows:

  • Section 1 covers definitions.
  • Section 2 is about existing debates in social science literature that are pertinent when considering systems leaders and systems leadership.
  • Section 3 is about what behaviours and capabilities systems leaders are thought to exhibit and possible ways of categorising those qualities.
  • Section 4 is about how organisations can use systems thinking to respond to issues facing them.
  • Section 5 provides a high-level assessment on the state of existing research and recommendations for the NLC going forward.
  • Appendix 1 contains Google Trends analysis about use of the term “systems leadership” and other relevant concepts.
  • Appendix 2 contains a select list of useful resources and institutions and journals conducting high calibre research for those seeking further reading.

1.2 Research Methodology:

As stated, this is not a systematic review of the literature. Rather it is a bespoke and qualitative high-level review. It used a very large academic library database to conduct the search as well as more intuition-derived “snowballing” techniques, such as surveying the citations in particularly good articles. A brief overview of the approach taken is set out below.

  • Following agreement of the search terms with the NLC, the University of Oxford’s academic database Searching Oxford Libraries Online (SOLO) was used for searching for citations. This is one of the world’s most comprehensive library databases.
  • The databases of several renowned business journals were also used, most notably the Harvard Business Review and the MIT Sloan Management Review, entries in which are less likely to appear in SOLO searches.
  • In the initial scoping exercise, the search terms “systems leadership,” “public sector systems” and “complex systems” were used. These articles were reviewed before employing a “snowballing” method (pursuing references of references and using citation-tracking software) to find further relevant literature.
  • The search of the literature was generally restricted to articles published since 2008 in English. Since the number of articles yielded from searches is far greater than the number that are either relevant to the research and/or possible to review in a constrained time frame, a degree of discretion was required in choosing which articles to review.
    • Choices about which articles to focus on were based on publication type and reputation (e.g. Leadership Quarterly is a well-known journal with research output highly pertinent to this project) and subject or discipline area. Similarly, dictionary terms or very short newspaper articles identified through the database search were also excluded.
    • Literature from social science disciplines (e.g. sociology) and professional journals (e.g. business school research) was also deemed more useful to this research project than, for example, applied science journals.
    • Existing knowledge of the leadership studies field was also a factor in decisions of inclusion and exclusion of articles. For example, the work of the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership is well-regarded, and its webpages were consulted for useful resources and references.
  • Searches made yielded many thousands of database entries of varying relevance to the review. In total, 148 items were identified for inclusion in the rapid review. In addition, advice was sought from several experts from inside and outside academia, several of whom are quoted in this review, and who provided further scholarly direction.
  • In sum, this rapid review is not comprehensive. Experience and scholarly instincts were used to focus in on what is likely to matter most to those studying systems leadership in policy contexts.

Harry Begg

continues in source:

Systems Leadership Rapid Review by Harry Begg – GOV.UK