Adaptive social learning for systemic leadership

By Catherine Hobbs

Catherine Hobbs (biography)

What’s involved in developing human capacity to address complexity, taking a mid- to longer-term viewpoint than is usual? How can we create the conditions in which people can cope with the daily challenges of living in a complex world and flourish? What form of leadership is required to inspire and catalyse this transformation?

Framework for adaptive social learning

The need for systems thinking is often referred to, but rarely considered, as a rich and comprehensive resource which could be developed further and applied. A critical systems thinking approach suggests that a variety of approaches should be drawn upon, in a manner of methodological pluralism, being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and applying them adaptively using synthesis as well as analysis.

In the spirit of such an approach, I’ve developed a learning pathway for systemic leadership, with five stages to explore. Each stage has an operational principle, with signposting to resources drawn from systems thinking, complexity science and operational research.

It’s a heuristic framework that signposts established resources which, taken together, could help leaders adapt, in small and varied steps, to a new paradigm of social learning for systemic leadership. Although my research was at the local government level, the framework could be more broadly useful to others.

The figure below shows the framework of the five stages of the learning pathway, linking each stage with the key question to be asked (going back to the basics of ‘what matters?’), the operational principle, the facet of systemic leadership required and signposting to suggested resources to help. For more detail and references, see Hobbs (2019).

Source: Adapted from Hobbs (2019)

This framework:

  • signposts resources to explore for each stage, helping to organise thinking about complexity and seeks to incorporate critical reflection about knowledge and values
  • suggests an appropriate sequence of questions. Thus, it tries to avoid asking:
    • how before being clear about what
    • what before being clearer about the wider context
    • thinking about the wider context before thinking about who is involved and why
    • thinking about who is involved and why before thinking about why adaptation to change is needed.

The framework thus raises cautions against defaulting to only trying to ‘solve problems’ without questioning existing structures, as these may also need to adapt.

“The strongest bit is that it helps people to ask questions, the generic five questions are really good, that’s the key to it all… It’s exploring how asking questions takes people towards a systems thinking approach.” (statement from a local government representative; see Hobbs 2019: 151)

Dunn’s social learning metaphor

The sequence of five questions thus helps to catalyse facets of social learning which are compatible with systemic leadership. This is strongly linked to the way Dunn (1971) envisaged ways of escaping deterministic models of economics and the social sciences through significant ‘portals’ (including systems theory) to a social learning metaphor that is open and creative rather than programmed, as an emerging social science paradigm which could more successfully approach critical developmental social problems.

Dunn presented this idea as the ‘fourth human threshold’ (Dunn 1971: 262) of human-social evolution, following symbolisation (speech and communication), social maintenance (social systems and groups) and the classical scientific method, which has fed the industrial and technological revolution.

Dunn foresaw that this would create anomalies as slow-moving social sciences would be unable to keep pace with the fast-paced physical sciences, and that such social learning would then be an ideal way of commitment to both science and human values. This concept of social learning, incorporating both science and human values, could represent the beginning of a journey to develop skills for systemic leadership in complexity.

Systemic leadership as design for adaptive social learning

The approach presented here extends many previous conceptions of leadership, being characterised by:

  • maintaining a sense of puzzlement and curiosity
  • acceptance of uncertainty
  • acknowledgement of the creativity of dissent
  • the questioning of boundaries imposed by human endeavour and working across them both within and beyond the organisation
  • finding our way responsibly
  • acknowledging the need for a high-variety approach of thinking and action to address complexity.

In this context, systemic leadership could fruitfully be interpreted as design for adaptive social learning.

Concluding questions

What do you think of the ideas presented? Do you have other ideas for creating a space for adaptive social learning? Do you have experience to share of embedding adaptive social learning into organisational routine? What suggestions do you have for designing for systemic leadership in complexity?

Find out more:
Hobbs, C. (2019). Systemic Leadership for Local Governance: Tapping the Resource Within. Palgrave Macmillan: Cham, Switzerland. (Online – book details):

Chapman, J. (2004). System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently. 2nd edn. Demos: London, United Kingdom. (Online): (PDF 466KB)

Dunn, E. S. (1971). Economic and Social Development: A Process of Social Learning. The John Hopkins Press: Baltimore, United States of America

Biography: Catherine Hobbs PhD is an independent researcher located in North Cumbria, UK. She is a social scientist with experience of working in academia and local government, with practical experience of developing multi-agency strategies in transport and health. She is interested in developing better links between the practice of local governance and scholarly expertise in order to increase capacity to address issues of complexity through knowledge synthesis. She is also interested in the potential of applying and developing a variety of systems thinking approaches (in the tradition of critical systems thinking), with the innovation and design movements in public policy.

8 thoughts on “Adaptive social learning for systemic leadership”

  1. This makes me think about the relationship between “systems leadership” and “transformational leadership”. In the latter, a systems perspective is absolutely necessary. However, the “transformational” part emphasizes the qualities of an extremely dynamic environment, unknowns and unknown unknowns, the need for radical experimentation, and emergence. In your systems leadership description you emphasize the stages, of doing one before the other in a linear manner. It strikes me that they in fact are continually interacting…action in the linear proposed model must be treated very loosely; it is more like continually checking in on the points. For example, understanding of the “what” is continually evolving as action takes place and feeds back into the understanding about assumptions and radically new possibilities. You might also find of interest the work of Per Olsson at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, if you’re unaware, on system entrepreneurship.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts about the relationship between ‘systems leadership’ and ‘transformational leadership.’ What you describe echoes the concerns of many systems thinkers expressed over the decades and has been incorporated in the fuller explanation of my Adaptive Learning Pathway. You have to start somewhere in defining steps, stages or facets, but this apparently linear approach (although useful for initial teaching purposes) is in itself anathema to many systems thinkers! Your thoughts are very much on a par, for example, with Checkland’s ‘Mode 2’ level of expertise and I particularly like Ackoff’s description of an interactive planning process as slicing an orange to look at it in different ways rather than thinking of it as strict sequential stages.

      To return to the Adaptive Learning Pathway, I faced the same dilemma and ideally, all five aspects should be logically present and are continually interacting to effect transformation in the sphere of local governance. The idea is to instil an understanding of the different aspects of ‘what matters’ and signpost established approaches which could help to extend the more habitual, restrictive and shallow patterns of thinking. To reflect this, the Adaptive Learning Pathway is presented in diagrammatic form in my book as a continuous pathway. The aim is to develop and protect a greater diversity of thinking, using synthesis and analysis, in the tradition of Critical Systems Thinking. This includes facilitative, problem structuring and flexible, creative approaches. I combine my five operational principles and call these ‘the currents of transformation:’ providing a sense of a dynamic resource, waiting to be tapped into to help build the capacity to address complexity.

      People from a range of disciplines have endeavoured to ‘escape’ and complement reductionism in different ways: in doing this, a range of terminology has developed. This thinking through of similarities and differences is a really valuable exercise for people who are perhaps, after all, kindred spirits… Thanks also for putting me on to Per Olsson’s work about system entrepreneurship.

  2. Thanks for your framework of the five stages of the learning pathway. We at the Haines centre agree that the sequence of questions is what is important in enabling strategic & systems thinking. We also use a generic set five questions as a way of helping to organise thinking about complexity and its also seeks to incorporate critical reflection about knowledge and values.

    We call it the “ABC” model which uses 5 generic questions are in the following sequence: A. Where do we want to be? (i.e., our ends, outcomes, purposes, goals, holistic vision); B. How will we know when we get there? (i.e., the customers’ needs and wants connected into a quantifiable feedback system); C. Where are we now? (i.e., today’s issues and problems); D. How do we get there? (i.e., close the gap from C to A in a complete holistic way); and ongoing is E. What will/may change in your environment in the future?

    Before we apply these 5 generic questions we ask our clients to consider the work of James Grier Miller “living systems theory” Before they “try to ‘solve problems’ without questioning existing structures” we encourage them to reflect on the two preconditions for systems thinking: Precondition #1 – What System? “What entity/system or ‘collision of systems are we dealing with?” & Precondition #2 – What Levels? “Within our identified system, what level(s) of the system are we trying to change; what is our purpose/desired outcome?”

    In terms of “systemic leadership” we have also developed the Six Natural Levels of Leadership Competencies which we would be happy to share with you too –

    • Thanks for your detailed comment – it’s very interesting to compare the similarities and differences between the Haines Centre approach and my Adaptive Learning Pathway for Systemic Leadership which was developed within the sphere of local governance. It’s good to know that there are similarities in certain aspects which link with the concept of systems thinking. Asking questions is in itself a good start, as in my experience some people still feel duty-bound to ‘have all the answers’: my questions cover desirable ongoing facets of design for systemic leadership rather than a sequence of questions around an intended ‘trajectory’ – it would also be interesting to mull over how these two approaches of social learning and strategic management/planning could somehow be combined, both in the questioning and the Haines Levels of Leadership Competencies. In particular, I find that there is a growing interest in ‘systems leadership’ in public policy and practice and how to build adequate human capacity to apply established knowledge of the Systems Sciences to systemic issues of complexity. Michael C Jackson has just published a comprehensive book: “Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity” which you might like to add to your resource book bibliography –

  3. Thanks, Chris. The book has just been newly released as a hardback and e-book plus chapters available etc. but is not available as open access: a paperback version will be available further down the line…hope this helps.


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