What Does it Mean to be a System Leader?

There is a lot of talk at the moment about being a system leader.

But what does this actually mean?

That it is not enough to ‘just’ lead an organisation or a team, but one has to make a leadership contribution to the wider system of  which that organisation, or team, is a part.

  • It is not enough for a head teacher to lead a school well, they also should make a contribution to the leadership of the wider education system.
  • It is not enough to be a good CEO of an NHS Trust.  Your leadership has to be exercised in the wider health economy – including other providers, commissioners, adult social care, children’s services and so on.

So, what is this ‘system’ in which we are expected to exert our system leadership?  How do we find its edges? How do we define our scope?  Is it more than leadership across a value chain?

I think so, yes.

Questions like this bring me to a second meaning for a ‘system leader’ – which is more about a worldview, philosophy and practice than just about expanding the dominion of our leadership.  It is about a different way of seeing and acting as a leader.

A system leader recognises that complex adaptive systems (and any system with a human being in it IS complex and adaptive) will not respond compliantly, or as we might wish or predict, to top down leadership, management by objectives or board room strategies.  They understand the need for participation across the system in shaping the future.  They know that this is best achieved by following some guidelines which they allow to shape their practice:

  • Keep the shared purpose for which the system exists up close and personal – for everyone.
  • Make sure that the purpose of the system is primary to the purpose of the units (organisations or people) that make up the system.
  • Inclusion and participation in the process are essential – but cannot be mandated.
  • Organisations and people are free to choose.  They want to associate in pursuit of purpose – but they also seek self-expression
  • Leadership works to the extent that it provides the platform for association around purpose and honours self-expression
  • That to help the system to get better at serving its purpose you must connect the system better to itself.  Especially those parts of the system that are usually excluded.
  • It is through these connections in the system, these improved relationships,  that information and innovation will flow, accelerating the rate of progress
  • Listening and building relationships are therefore the catalyst for progress – not the imposition of a blue print, policy or ‘vision’.
  • Systems shape themselves around meanings and relationships. Change the meaning and the relationships and you have changed the system.
  • That you can’t control the development of the system, as it reacts to directives but rarely obeys them.
  • We may enforce compliance – but only by paying the price in what matters most – loyalty, commitment, passion and intelligence.
  • That there is only one system.

So for me, system leadership is a very different way of leading, that is served more by humble enquiry and the facilitation of people and organisations that care than about the imposition of change.

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  1. Norman Perrin says

    Hi Mike. Inspired by your piece, this was how I ended a post in a closed newsletter to Paces’ Trustees (with a couple of minor edits for the sense) Me being about to step down as CEO had something to do with it too!

    “Throughout my time as the co-founder and then as CEO of Paces, I have argued that Paces must be part of something larger than itself and that other people matter. That is why I have attended every Conductive Education World Congress since the second one (Munich last October was the 8th); that is why, in our early days and until it collapsed, I supported the UK Federation for Conductive Education and why, today, I support Action Cerebral Palsy (and hosted the meeting at Yorkshire Sculpture Park out of which ActionCP grew); it is an important part of the reason, for me, for continuing the commitment to building our programme of annual seminars [which you have kindly agreed to Chair again this year], of engaging Paces as a key player in the wider regional world among education, health and care professionals (and why the External Relations Sub-Committee is such a vital committee); it is why I see partnership with local authorities, especially Sheffield (however difficult that is – and it has been very difficult) as essential to our growth in services; it is why, long ago, I helped form the ill-fated High Green Forum and and why I am so pleased today to see its successor based at Paces Campus; and it is why I see Paces bringing leadership and innovation to Paces Campus, beyond our own narrow and short-term self-interest, as critical to Paces own strategic success and sustainability.

    Maybe there is a lot of talk, as Mike says, “about being a system leader” – a term new to me. If then, I have been a system leader without knowing it, my being so derives from my experience as a parent responsible for the upbringing and education of a child with cerebral palsy, now in her thirties, and the absolute conviction that neither she, nor any other child, nor any similar family, should be excluded, segregated, cut-off or made to feel an outsider – and that the exact opposite needs to be embedded in the very DNA of the management and leadership and values (above all else, the Values) of Paces. So I welcome this new term ‘system leader’, meaning one who makes “a leadership contribution to the wider system of which that organisation … is a part”. I commend system leadership to Paces’ soon-to-be-in-post new Chief Executive and to Paces’ Trustees, guardians of our definition of success. I hope they will never lose sight, even for a moment, of the importance to achieving that success, of Paces being part of something larger than itself and that other people matter – not settling for success based on anything less.

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