Systems Leadership: what it is, how it works and why we need it now

Debbie Sorkin, National Director of Systems Leadership, the Leadership Centre

by Administrator

Systems Leadership: what it is, how it works and why we need it now

Debbie Sorkin, National Director of Systems Leadership, the Leadership Centre

by Administrator

by Administrator

If you’re involved in public health, or the NHS, or social care, you’ll be aware of the unprecedented strain that public services are coming under.

Hospitals in England are collectively billions of pounds in the red, and public health and adult social care have borne the brunt of cuts in many local authorities. The outcomes are increasingly visible: reduced quality of care; less emphasis on prevention; and social care resources being stretched to breaking point, with knock-on effects on the NHS.

There’s also a tendency to retreat into silos. This isn’t because people are inherently venal, or don’t want to involve others. When you’re under pressure, or you feel you’re operating in a ‘blame’ culture with little room for manoeuvre, it can feel easier – and familiar – to retreat behind organisational or departmental boundaries; to blame others for what’s happening; or to stop acting altogether and wait for the next instruction from above.

This is exactly the wrong thing to do. We need to do the opposite. We need to come together to find new solutions and change the way we deliver services. This isn’t just a question of money. It’s what people want – more joined-up services that they can access easily and that fit around their lives.

In other words, we need to find new ways of working – and leading – together.

And we can. This is where Systems Leadership comes in.

Systems Leadership is about how you lead across boundaries – departmental, organisational or sector.  It’s how you lead when you’re not in charge, and you need to influence others rather than pull a management lever.

It describes the way you need to work when you face large, complex, difficult and seemingly intractable problems; where you need to juggle multiple uncertainties; where no one person or organisation can find or organise the solution on their own; where everyone is grappling with how to make resources meet demand which is outstripping them; and where the way forward therefore lies in involving as many people’s energies, ideas, talents and expertise as possible.

It recognises that leadership isn’t vested in people simply because of their title or position; that it is possible – indeed, necessary – for leadership to be shared and ceded – and that you can come together on the basis of a shared ambition, and accept partial or clumsy solutions on the way to getting there. Working with uncertainty, and ambiguity, is a given, and it’s expected that people will experiment with different methods and processes as a result.

Systems Leadership is therefore a really useful tool to have in your armoury when you’re working in difficult situations, and when you’re seeking to have your voice heard and get a place at the table.

And we know it works. There’s a body of evidence that shows that these approaches can shift the way people think; how they behave; and what happens on the ground as a result. National and international research has identified key behaviours and characteristics that support good systems leadership. And there is learning from practice: a national programme backed by Public Health England, the NHS and local government, that provides place-based support, has led to demonstrable and quantifiable improvements in health outcomes.

Try using systems leadership approaches: it really is possible to get significant change in your place.

How to get started:

  • see yourselves as systems leadership and connectors
  • have citizens centrally involved from the start
  • it’s about relationships and trust, not structures and hierarchies
  • you can start small, and from where you are
  • use narratives and framing to change the way people perceive issues
  • work with coalitions of the willing
  • make connections, form networks and use offline conversations to build support
  • look to make progress rather than solving an issue in one fell swoop

Debbie Sorkin is National Director of Systems Leadership at the Leadership Centre

Twitter: @DebbieSorkin2