What is systems leadership?

What is 'systems leadership'?

Well it means a lot of things to a lot of people. In some settings it is taken to mean the individual at the head of the system. In others it implies a more collective act from people in multiple organisations and maybe at a variety of levels.

If it is one individual, isn’t that just ‘leadership’?

Yes. That would look like straight forward organisational leadership. It would imply that the individual concerned has a superior power relationship with all the others and can set direction, boundaries and targets.

How does that work when there are multiple organisations involved?

In truth, it doesn’t. Even if that individual is a potent personality in the local system, the differing governance and reporting requirements mean that power is often shared and messy so if an individual employs the straight forward organisational leadership approach it generates friction and often inaction instead of action.

So what is needed instead?

In a complex environment where individuals and organisations have different objectives and requirements, the task is never to produce the one right answer. Instead it is to figure out what we can actually achieve here and how we might get to do it. Time spent designing wonderful models for the future has its place, but is often a diversion from the real and present task of dealing with the situation in hand.

Well how do you set about that?

The first thing is to recognise quite how little time organisational leaders may spend together working on the vastly complex problems they face. A weekly or monthly meeting on a traditional agenda simply won’t do for this type of issue. You just end up trudging through papers produced by more junior officers with less sight of the real issues than yourselves and having the real conversations over coffee or in the short break before you all rush off to the next meeting. At best these set up bi-laterals but rarely result in a shared sense of endeavour, a clear and purposeful direction for your collective activity.

So we need to spend time together differently but we don’t have to do tree-hugging do we?

Look, you’re dealing with some really tough stuff and being pulled in all sorts of directions over it. That you all get along is beneficial but this isn’t about a love-in. It is instead about gaining clarity as to what matters to you, both personally and organisationally, and therefore figuring out what you are really prepared to do together.

Surely this all about the organisational agendas not our personal ones?

Really? Ask your staff if they see it that way. Personal stuff gets in the way and also helps. It’s always there. Some decisions result in loss of influence or status for some people. Others make individuals more powerful. Status and esteem matter. So it isn’t all about this, and yet you also can’t simply discount it.

So we need to get all the egos in the room, then what?

Connect on the individual and organisational level. Spend time sharing what is on your plate. Hold an open inquiry into what you are actually trying to achieve together. Work out what your collective role is in doing that. Decide how you need to operate together and individually in the future if what you are trying to do  is to grow.

What do you mean grow? Surely you mean deliver?

The challenges that require you to work together are complex. You don’t ‘deliver’ a change in global quality standards and you don’t ‘deliver’ a healthier or wealthier population. Lots of people will need to change what they do if you are to succeed. Some are already way ahead of you. You will need to connect all this up, nurture some stuff and weed out things that aren’t helping. You will need to help people see how what they’re doing contributes towards something meaningful. You will have to constantly improve people’s experiences. Does that sound like deliver?

That all sounds very complex, do you think it will work?

Yes. It has brought huge steps forward in public and private settings all round the world. And is what you are doing now really working?