By Benjamin Taylor
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:
- more discriminating analysis and conversation by not confusing these separate flavours or approaches
- critique of different approaches based on their actual characteristics
- 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:
- What might systems leadership be? And how does it relate to systems change? A happily tentative essay by Benjamin Taylor. (Online): https://stream.syscoi.com/2020/08/03/what-might-systems-leadership-be-and-how-does-it-relate-to-systems-change-a-happily-tentative-essay/, and a response to an earlier blog post by Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley on How systems thinking enhances systems leadership.
A companion blog post with references, published simultaneously, can be found at: https://stream.syscoi.com/2021/06/21/a-schema-for-better-understanding-systems-leadership-and-systems-change/
Biography: Benjamin Taylor is chief executive, Public Service Transformation Academy, a not-for-profit social enterprise (https://www.publicservicetransformation.org/), which delivers the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy. He is also managing partner, RedQuadrant, a networked consultancy in public service transformation (https://www.redquadrant.com/); Director, Systems and Complexity in Organisation, the systems practitioner professional body (https://www.systemspractice.org/); and curator, Systems Community of Inquiry (https://stream.syscoi.com/). He is based in London, UK.