Six ways to see systems leadership

By Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor (biography)

What do we mean by systems leadership? And how does it relate to systems change?

Ideas about both systems thinking and systems change have become prominent over the last few years, but the terms are often poorly defined and used with a range of meanings.

I suggest that there are broadly six types or flavours of systems leadership, all of which have key implications for systems change. And, of course, they can overlap.

1. Systems leadership as a form of better leadership

This is inclusive, mobilising, and systems aware leadership. However, by focusing on the leader as an individual, this commonly defaults to current leadership paradigms, which miss wider systemic elements. The locus is on existing power structures and authority, which are taken to define the system in focus.

2. Externally-driven systems leadership

Here leadership is an activity, which focuses on change driven from outside the established system. This shades into systems change and systems convening. The purpose of change is largely directed by the funder or a partner. It can also involve multiple systems interacting and being shaped purposively. It may involve turning an unstructured or un-organised system into a structured or organised one. The focus is some feature or demand in the system which is perceived as having greater legitimacy than existing power structures.

3. Facilitative system leadership

This focuses on the purpose of change emerging from within the system. This involves futures work/visioning, design, and co-creation approaches. It can also include asset-based community development approaches, which mobilise or enable those considered as the constituents of the system in shaping change.

The distinction between types 2 and 3 can be a fine one, and depends on who is identified to have power: the driver or facilitator, or those in the system they mobilise.

4. Systems leadership for systems innovation

This typically involves a more entrepreneurial and less funder-directed approach, typically seeking to grow the seeds of the new within the existing system. This includes a complexity and/or multi-perspectival overlay, including a critical challenge to values (indeed this characterises all the approaches when done well).

5. Systems leadership as leadership of complex systems

These approaches look at existing systems of power in ways that allow:

  • understanding of their underlying processes and dynamics,
  • improved interpersonal dynamics (not taking personally that which is systemic) and
  • improved tactics (working in regard to systems not just interpersonal dynamics) and strategy (working to shape the dynamics of the systems).

6. Organic types of systems leadership

Here, intentionality is less focused on leadership or change and more on enhancing the functioning of the system per se. Leadership and change emerge organically from within the system.

Implications of these six types of systems leadership

A key question for every schema of categorisation is: ‘what is the underlying purpose?’. Here, three key purposes are:

  1. more discriminating analysis and conversation by not confusing these separate flavours or approaches
  2. critique of different approaches based on their actual characteristics
  3. allowing learning to emerge based on the distinctions and critiques.

Systems leadership approaches can be interrogated for:

  • an appreciation of epistemological and ontological complexity (or, better still, non-dualist complexity) that the type of leadership questions encountered in systems leadership inherently involve
  • acknowledgement of ethical complexity and a shadow side of leadership and change
  • an appreciation of fundamental human, systems, complexity and/or cybernetic laws; these are the patterns that underlie individual or organisation-level behaviour, from the tendency of those ‘done to’ by the system to develop shared identity and solidarity, to the Conant-Ashby Good Regulator Theorem (that something capable of regulating a system must be a model of that system)
  • ethical considerations not being mistaken for means; ‘doing the right thing’ does not automatically mean that the system will thereby be improved
  • understanding of the ever-changing nature of the system, along with contested power, ethical, and other dynamics
  • multiple definitions of the system-in-question and of leadership, to avoid static systems mapping and mechanistic intervention that takes only a first-order perspective
  • practical action and shared triple-loop learning.

In short, approaches which embody these characteristics would:

  • for Type 1 (better leadership): produce truly systems- and complexity-aware leaders, sensitive to power and their own perspectives amongst others
  • for Types 2 and 3 (externally-driven and facilitative systems leadership): produce awareness of the ethical issues
  • for Type 4 (systems innovation leadership): offer better access to an understanding of deep systems dynamics
  • for Type 5 (leadership of complex systems): offer a critical approach to ethics and power
  • for Type 6 (organic leadership): provide a consideration of purpose and the emergent properties of the activity.

I have felt an inherent tension in writing this blog post between the traditional drivers of change: anger, injustice, loss, pain, and frustration, and an acceptance that ‘everything is as it is’ which is necessary to proceed effectively. This is beautifully captured in this episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast, in an interview with Jane Affleck, PhD on the environmental crisis and her practices of walking, painting, and being in nature.

What do you think? Do these ideas about systems leadership and systems change resonate with your experience? Do you have other types or characterisations of systems leadership to suggest? What critique might be developed based on these distinctions?

This blog post is adapted from:

A companion blog post with references, published simultaneously, can be found at:

Biography: Benjamin Taylor is chief executive, Public Service Transformation Academy, a not-for-profit social enterprise (, which delivers the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy. He is also managing partner, RedQuadrant, a networked consultancy in public service transformation (; Director, Systems and Complexity in Organisation, the systems practitioner professional body (; and curator, Systems Community of Inquiry ( He is based in London, UK.

26 thoughts on “Six ways to see systems leadership”

  1. Benjamin, a final thought. Perhaps the third dimension of your schema for systems leadership is two-stranded?:

    – Strand 1: Systems literacy, in the form of knowledge of a variety of established systems thinking approaches, together with the subsequent development of further approaches relevant to opportunities and constraints.
    – Strand 2: Designed operational connectivity, where it is accepted that working patterns need to become more systemic – e.g. with characteristics of inclusivity, resilience and sustainability, i.e. systems thinking activities are not seen as occasional one-off projects, but are fundamental to contemporary ways of working.

    Taking the above two strands, it may then be possible to think through each of your sometimes overlapping systems leadership types (however these evolve) to think through the implications for systems leadership, and thus applied to your interrogations and the offers of each type.

    Each aspect referred to broadly here has quite a lot going on ‘under the bonnet’ to make it drivable in a purposeful direction and in a timely manner. There’s a lot to be done!

    • Oh yes, this is great!

      I would break this down now in a bit of a different way:

      1- Complementary learning practices:
      a) Critical challenge to legitimacy of power
      b) Increase system effectiveness

      2- Methods and capability to reflect and change
      – Systems literacy, in the form of knowledge of a variety of established systems thinking approaches, together with the subsequent development of further approaches relevant to opportunities and constraints.

      3- Embed this learning capability and capacity into the system
      – Designed operational connectivity, where it is accepted that working patterns need to become more systemic – e.g. with characteristics of inclusivity, resilience and sustainability, i.e. systems thinking activities are not seen as occasional one-off projects, but are fundamental to contemporary ways of working.

      So there is an analogy here to triple-loop learning.

      Then I was about to say that ‘if we carry on down this path, soon we will reinvent a recognised systems approach!’… however in fact I see a real analogy to my own ‘systems change’ approach – I’ll drop the link in a further followup message as otherwise I think this is held until Gabriele is awake to release it from the spam filter 🙂

  2. Peter Jones was kind enough to leave two comments re: this article on twitter (

    The question must be asked of “systems entrepreneurship” as the startup disposition is to intervene until growth is gained.
    When systems can be gamed or manipulated (often unintentionally) what ethical balances prevent a power-seeking appropriation of intervention?


    Actually this is a helpful summary of systems leadership from @antlerboy and provides a place to start in pursuing local definitions of these distinctions.
    @FlourishingEnt has a SSHRC study this year that squarely addresses #1. “Systems leadership as a form of better leadership”

  3. Thanks, Benjamin. Your early thinking on a schema for systems leadership is very interesting, including the comprehensive nature of your references, as well as your perception of the risks in your companion piece. I have also found the work of Deborah Ghate, Jane Lewis and David Welbourn of the Staff College to be of relevance and Sue Goss both these are at the practitioner end of the spectrum of endeavour.

    I see Gerald’s comment about leadership that employs systems thinking for collaborative systems change both adding something and also making sense of the limits (and thus the risks) of all the other types you identify, as a fundamentally important point.

    As Gerald’s comments cross-reference to our earlier blog, I would add that the brevity of the piece it was adapted from meant that only three of the five operational principles around ‘what matters?’ (2,3 and 4) were covered in the piece (this was developed from my Adaptive Learning Pathway for Systemic Leadership). The five operational principles, each of which signpost towards established resources drawn from systems thinking, operational research and complexity approaches are as follows:
    1. Collaborative learning (thinking differently matters)
    2. Critical appraisal (assumptions matter)
    3. Dynamic diagnostic (wider contexts matter)
    4. Participation (people matter)
    5. Clarity of purpose (systemic effectiveness matters).

    Importantly, therefore, my concept of adaptive social learning for systemic leadership includes a first principle of ‘collaborative learning,’ and all practice should be undertaken with principle 5 of systemic effectiveness: clarity of purpose (something which, in my experience, is all-too-frequently overlooked). More on the adaptive learning pathway framework can be found in my earlier blog here:

    Ideally, co-exploration and learning need to take place in order to enhance systems leadership (i.e. to avoid the continued operation of default settings). It’s relevant here that my research about systemic leadership has recently been referenced with the Human Learning Systems movement . An e-book was launched last week, which may be of interest to the readers of this blog . (This is one of the things I continue to work on as a Visiting Fellow at Northumbria University).

    There are also similar ‘default settings’ risks associated with the broad terms of ‘system change’ and indeed ‘transformation’. A variety of established systems thinking approaches can help provide the necessary basis for continuous collaborative learning and adaptation in order to re-invigorate systems literacy for operational connectivity, (rather than only ‘majoring’ on separation) – and the rest will then follow in addressing what is needed (including adaptation of systems thinking itself) while also releasing self-made constraints where possible. We haven’t got to be too hung up about finding tidiness along the way, or an orderly way of ‘getting there,’ simply because it doesn’t need to happen that way. Looking at your structuring of systems leadership approaches: ‘better leadership of the system’, ‘help the system function better as a system’ etc., they would all benefit by an aim of better leadership for operational connectivity. Perhaps this is a third complementary goal for you to consider, which may affect your companion piece diagram? That form of connected leadership can emerge (and is emerging) from a lot of places! Systemic leadership, informed by a variety of systems thinking approaches to help address complexity, and which I have interpreted as ‘design for adaptive social learning’ could most authentically help the systems leadership movement, beginning to establish a symbiotic relationship between systems leadership and systems thinking. It’s all about the design of small-scale interactions together (whether locally, nationally or internationally, or a mix), adapting from where we are now, because that is how we live our lives. Systems thinking approaches also help to design a practical form of operational connectivity, rather than connectivity for its own sake (which can be overwhelming and wasteful).

    The implications of all this are that our perceptions now need to evolve – preferably rapidly – from a form of ‘them and us’ separation judgements in our frequent reference to ‘systems’, ‘systems thinking’ and ‘systems leadership’ associated with an apparent need for tidiness/control, towards leading operational connectivity, ‘how we learn, think we know and adapt together’, through analysis and synthesis, however messy that is, through constantly questioning how we perceive systems by improving systems literacy for operational connectivity, through the mastery Donella Meadows referred to as having “less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

    • Thanks for such a rich response! I’ll take your comments a chunk at a time.

      I found the Leadership Centre and OPM pieces a little frsutrating on release, and IIRC when I reviewed them again for a systems change lit review when developing a framework four or five years ago – principally because they seem to point primarily to styles and behaviours rather than methods, approaches, and intentional perspectives, even though their descriptions of ‘what it looks like’ seem to me to be rich, accurate (albeit evidently framed through certain approaches e.g. Adaptive Leadership), and interesting, and I’ve certainly returned to both at times.

      I think there are several risks inherent in this, particularly prevalent in the Leadership Centre piece:
      – leadership papers which are primarily descriptive without prescriptive elements can leave willing leaders frustrated as to courses of action or focuses of their behaviour that they can take; if people don’t recognise themselves (or even their aspirations) in the description, or even if they do, what are they to do about it?
      – leadership can easily be seen as something individualised, personal, about the characteristics of the person – this leads to a dangerous focus on developing the individual (potentially out of context), rather than systems of leadership
      – and the perspective seems leader-centric rather than system- or method-centric.

      I really like the definition Sue Goss chose in her paper (ironically from the Virtual Staff College): “The collaborative leadership of a network
      of people in different places and at different levels in the system creating a shared endeavor and cooperating to make a significant change”, which changes that focus somewhat. Yet elsewhere in that paper, I feel the pull of ‘swinging the pendulum’ – prescriptions for action are there, for sure – but they are mostly against some perceived alternative model of leadership, and they include suggestions which I think would require really exceptional justification, e.g. “Change needs to happen everywhere and in parallel”, which does not seem self-evident to me nor fully justified by the text.

      • Thanks for this Benjamin – I was pointing those papers out as relevant to the subject as they were absent from your companion paper and you have performed a very interesting critique of them! I also like Sue Goss’s definition, and have returned to it a good few times.

    • “I see Gerald’s comment about leadership that employs systems thinking for collaborative systems change both adding something and also making sense of the limits (and thus the risks) of all the other types you identify, as a fundamentally important point.”

      Yes! I absolutely agree. And I love your five operational principles, and am a big fan of the Human Learning Systems report (I think they do suffer from seeing HLS as a ‘movement in opposition’ to a straw man, and from lack of clarity of alternative practices; but the core focus is so good and strong that this is not a major problem).

      I think your third potential suggested goal of ‘operational connectivity’ is really interesting. I want to say that it is quite aligned to my concept of ‘the system functioning better as a system’ and also quite aligned to the style I dubbed ‘organic systems leadership’, but I think your framing of it as a third dimension is really interesting. And I think it’s really worth saying (and I think you would agree?) that while we are both talking about ‘effectiveness’ and ‘connectedness’ of ‘the system’, this does not necessitate EITHER a form of centralised or top-down direction OR any kind of formalised connection; it could equally be a much more embedded, self-organised ‘ecosystem’? I think you are getting at something like that in your excellent final paragraph? And I agree.

      And I also agree wholeheartedly with “establish a symbiotic relationship between systems leadership and systems thinking”.

      Your comment “It’s all about the design of small-scale interactions together” rings bells with something I have been hearing tangentially a lot at the moment: “operate at the meso level”. Is that something you are explicitly getting at there?

      • Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful reply. Perhaps a goal of operational connectivity is worth mulling over a bit more… it could help avoid proceeding along the lines of more fixed interpretations of ‘the system’ or ‘systems’, as of course there are multiple overlapping evolving systems that we define in order to help us to do or achieve something. I agree that the connectedness can be any which way.

        My comment about the design of small-scale interactions (employing systems thinking, of course) is something I see as the unit(s) of energy that will get all this more systemic work underway in a way that is immensely practical rather than overwhelming. As regards your ‘meso level’ comment, I think that could help address what has been absent. I have previously thought of this along the lines of the conscious development of a sense-making stage for a meso level, where people can deliberate in a constantly evolving manner. I do think there is a more healthy appetite for this now and it is already happening – I’m very optimistic.

  4. The question how systems thinking and leadership relate to each other is becoming increasingly topical and different approaches are suggested , for a recent review see e.g.

    We need leadership in modelling projects and in group collaboration. We discussed this in our recent blog: . The concept of Systems Intelligence brings the actor herself (leader, participant etc. ) into the focus. Often the complexities of the social system created by people and organizations in problem solving are the most challenging ones. So focusing on the systems in the problem at hand is not enough but we also need to see ourselves as actors in the overall system. There is more material here:

    • Thanks Raimo. I read the rapid review when it came out. I honestly think the disclaimers are the most important part of what is a well-written piece that misses almost all the systems/cybernetics/complexity literature and approaches; I don’t know why they used a fixed-phrase literature search rather than asking people active in the field! This comes through in definitions which are about a wider definition of leadership, more dynamic, and with ‘shared vision’. None of these deserve or require the ‘systems’ prefix, in my opinion. Consequently, it’s once again focused on ‘the leader’ rather than the system, and quickly shifts off the subject anyway. My guess (purely because this was published on is that during the unfortunately short-lived period where we had a Systems Unit in the UK Cabinet Office, some requirement arose within the civil service for ‘academic justification’ for the vital work they were trying to undertake, and consequently via the Leadership Centre, a clearly talented academic was given a ‘hospital pass’ assignment. That, as I say, is pure speculation, satisfying as it is as a Occam’s Razor explanation of many aspects of the situation. A lot more could be said about this, but given I haven’t seen reference or follow-up (and, sadly, the Systems Unit was very shortlived), this might not be a good investment of time.

      • Just to let you people know that a new Systems Unit is now operating out of the Government Office of Science. I have my first discussion with them next week. And the staff of the old Unit have passed everything from pre-COVID onto them.

    • I’m fascinated by your leadership in participatory modelling piece – thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m ashamed to say that I had to google to learn more about participatory modelling – clearly a gap in my knowledge! From the first descriptions, it feels to me like an addition to my mental category of collective systems facilitation techniques? (see though the main content linked to – on – seems to not be available). I can see the obvious connections to Soft Systems Methodology and other general forms of systems modelling (I’m referring primarily to which seems to have a nice overview, wikipedia being a bit disappointing on this topic). So I think that the question of ‘leadership’ in such processes is critical (and closely allied to facilitation and the risks of dominating, excluding etc).

      I did wonder, what is the basis for your distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’?

      In your piece you say:
      “Systems leadership emphasizes understanding of the whole which includes mental models, building shared vision and team learning. Acting wisely in such contexts reflects systems intelligence. The core idea is that in problem solving, such as occurs in participatory modelling, people always are part of and act from within systems. Systems thinking is central to understanding environmental problems and systems intelligence provides a natural leadership framework for participatory modelling.”
      I think that your definition of systems leadership is rich and interesting – and that the contrast to ‘complexity leadership’ is also accurate, and illustrate the challenge of the false distinction between ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ (which I address here: – bereft of its roots in systems and cybernetics, there is so much of ‘complexity leadership’ which is critical of other approaches yet lacks prescriptions or support for effective action strategies.

      You concept of Systems Intelligence is also new to me (at least as a technical phrase), yet looks very useful. (It’s one of the wonders of the space that one can spend, as I have, ten years or more avidly reading and curating everything one can find about the ‘universe’ of systems/complexity/cybernetics, then at any stage turn a corner and find an entirely new and coherent spiral galaxy which is completely novel to one…). Apart from the non-technical use of the phrase (i.e. ‘intelligence about systems’), I’ve been used to thinking of this kind of capability in terms of adult/vertical development, as in Torbert (my favourite), Kegan, Cook-Greuter – or, indeed, ‘levels of thinking’ in Elliot Jacques’ terms. Is there a connection between Systems Intelligence and the adult/vertical development field?

      In any case, I agree with your conclusion that those trained in modelling skills are not necessarily trained or competent in relevant complementary leadership skills. That’s why, in developing the Level 7 (postgraduate level) UK systems thinking practitioner apprenticeship (, we focused on including practice skills alongside systems competencies – see the ‘knowledge, skills, and behaviours’ approach.

      • Thanks for your positive comments. We think that it is essential to recognize the difference between leadership and management. Leadership brings with it responsibility and the ethical dimension.The expression that leaders do the right things and managers do things right explains a lot. You can do things technically correctly but still miss the big picture. This is particularly relevant in stakeholder engagement and facilitation.
        Systems Intelligence has indeed been discussed in the context of Kegan see the article by Jones and Corner :
        Personal growth is, indeed, the key in developing one´s systems thinking and leadership skills. Besides courses we need practical tools for this to happen. Gamification is one way of engaging people and teams in a self-driven learning process. More on this in our recent article entitled “Design Gaming for Learning Systems Intelligence in Socio-Emotional Systems“:

        • Thanks for the links!

          I often see the distnction between leadership and management (mostly outside of an academic context) – I just wondered if you had any evidence or explicit underlying assumptions about why and how this is a meaningful distinction? I can see that it is important to both do the right thing and do things right (and this fits into many schemas; double loop learning, deutero learning, to a certain extent Elliot Jacques’ levels of thinking etc) – but I am not confident in management/leadership being sensible or meaningful outside of a specific contex. For example, is it not important for managers to also be concerne with ethics and doing the right thing, as well as doing things right? And if so (and you are then saying that all managers should be leaders), is there a distinction left?

          • I’m just returning to add that I might more profitably assume you are making a distinction based on observed behaviour – ‘are you focused on doing things right? You’re managing. Are you focused on doing the right thing? Then you’re leading’ – is that what you’re getting at?

            • This is exactly what I mean. In particular in systems modelling projects the systems expert can easily be carried away by the technical modelling challenging and forget the reasons why the modelling is in the first place needed i.e. to help people learn and engage. The overall goal is not to get the model running but to make use of it in a collective thinking process.

  5. Good post, Benjamin and an interesting taxonomy of systems leadership. Given that leadership is a person quality, I’m wondering if there is another form of systems leadership – situational and or adaptive systems leadership – where the above taxonomy becomes a practical toolbox for the leader (person) to identify the type of leadership needed in a situation and employ the various frames and approaches for best effect?

    • Thanks Delia! I must admit, I bumped on ‘leadership is a personal quality’ – I don’t know about that! And yet in context it makes perfect sense to me – I agree that being able to choose between these approaches to suit your analysis of the situation is really valuable (it reminds me of a part of the Centre for Creative Leadership’s ‘boundary work’ that I really like – see – quite different from your critical boundary work, but I’d be interested in your views on it.
      So, yes, a great next step would be ‘what’s our understanding of the situation and therefore what leadership approach would be suggested?’
      It would have to include reflection and feedback and challenge because of course it’s a mirror game – you bring your own understanding to the situation!

  6. Nice contribution. I would add a seventh approach to systems leadership: leadership that employs systems thinking for collaborative system change. This is the one that (a) adds something (systems thinking) to simply leading in whatever way within a real-world system, and (b) has the potential to provide a coherent theory that makes sense of the limits of all the others.


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