The environment in which public service leaders operate has been – and is still – changing rapidly, presenting extraordinary and unprecedented challenges and opportunities for leaders.

Social pressures and trends, expectations and social media, globalisation and localism – along with the continued presence of a number of social, housing, health and policing issues affecting people and their communities – all contribute to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.


Partly as a result and partly as a response, a key feature of public service work has been the blurring of organisational, professional and geographical boundaries as services are integrated and transformed, resources pooled or shared and staff deployed more flexibly.

Collaboration across the public service is widely recognised as the only possible effective, and essential, approach to the need to secure better outcomes for people at an optimum cost. The Better Care Fund, Care Bill, Health and Wellbeing Boards are evidence of the traction this agenda has at the highest level of Government.


Few, if any, leaders will have experienced this environment and the combination of pressures and opportunities. Their staff will be in a similar position and look to their leaders to motivate, guide and support them as never before.

Steering group

Two years ago the NHS Leadership Academy joined with other like-minded partners in public service to found the Systems Leadership steering group. Together, they commissioned research to deepen their collective understanding of the behaviour that enables people to lead successfully across and between organisations. This research makes a powerful case for the critical role leaders and their effective personal development plays in such times – securing beneficial performance and outcomes for the people they serve and lead.


Systems leadership then, seeks to affect change for the social good across multiple interacting and intersecting systems. It can be contrasted with leadership styles such as one which uses an organisation based on direct, positional authority (often referred to as a ‘command and control’ style) or transactional approaches, which are held to be less effective in the circumstances most public service leaders now face, which are better addressed through non-linear, emergent, systems leadership approaches.

Once one starts to grasp ambiguous issues, the understanding of the complexity of the problem increases and the number the players involved, from many different areas, starts to rise. This can lead to a tendency to reinforce organisational boundaries. Such messy, complex problems are always just too hard for individuals fully to comprehend or manage.


So ‘the systems’ that we refer to are rarely a single organisation, sector or even the public agencies in one place. They can involve a wide range of commercial and not-for-profit organisations and a complex web of people. The idea that these will conform to a model of leadership that is based on a single organisational model with its hierarchical power structures is simply not sustainable. Traditional organisational models of leadership and their associated behaviours don’t stand up in this environment. There is a need now for all leaders to shift their centre of gravity from loyalty to their organisation to loyalty to the citizen and wider population.

In practice

Systems leadership in contrast can be characterised by two distinct and interrelated attributes. It is i) collaborative and ii) crosses boundaries – organisational, professional and virtual, therefore extending leaders beyond the usual limits of their responsibilities and authority.

In practice, great systems leadership requires most importantly a particular mindset and way of thinking about and approaching a leadership role. This is often evidenced in leaders, through the following:

  • Their personal core values  – such as inspiring shared purpose by taking risks to stand up for a shared purpose


  • How they perceive – such as evaluating information by gathering data from outside their area of work or applying fresh approaches to improve current thinking


  • The way they think and analyse – such as sharing the vision by communicating to create credibility and trust or holding to account by managing and supporting performance


  • How they relate to others – such as connecting services by adapting to different standards and approaches outside their organisation


  • Their behaviours and actions – such as developing capability by creating systems for succession


  • Their personal qualities and way of being – such as influencing for results by developing collaborative agendas and consensus

So while having many aspects in common with organisational leadership, systems leadership is different in the extent to which it requires a mind-set which gives greater emphasis to a co-created shared vision of what is important and what is actually achieved by way of ultimate outcomes.

Local Vision systems leadership pilot projects

The steering group funded 25 Local Vision systems leadership pilot projects across England, here are just a few examples of the approach in practice:


In Kent, the project enabled local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to play a key role in bringing together a person-centred Better Care Fund bid that will help to reshape care across the county.  In Wakefield, it has partly been the determination of CCGs to engage with systems leadership that has driven the development of an integrated model of care to improve quality of life for residents. In the London borough of Merton, the Local Vision initiative led to a co-production process between health and social care, with good feedback loops between the front line, middle managers, clinicians and the senior leadership group, so people feel they are owning the change, and the leadership group can respond fast when barriers come up.  There have also been strong links built up with users, carers and the voluntary sector, including Healthwatch.


Cornwall and the Wirral are both examples of where a very wide range of stakeholders have been brought together through the Local Vision project to create better health and wellbeing outcomes through food, and to reduce food poverty (use of food banks in Birkenhead had increased by 47% over four months from 9000 to over 13000, for example) – outcomes have included more local markets and food networks, building better networks between local farmers and local consumers, so there is more use of surplus food and less waste; more community cafes; and developing a skills-based food curriculum for schools.


Felicity Owen, Director of Public Health in Cornwall, said: “Being part of systems leadership has been invigorating, fun and is developing some great outcomes with a distributed leadership model, keeping local voices at its heart.  The work continues to grow and make a real difference in creating food wealth and working towards no-one going hungry in Cornwall.”


And in Plymouth, representatives from health, public health, the local council, the voluntary and third sectors, the police and the local university have been working together on reducing late-night street drinking in order to benefit health, reduce demands on A&E and reduce streetscene costs: the systems leadership programme has led to joint decisions on where funding should best be invested to achieve better outcomes.


Against a growing body of evidence drawn from the real world application of systems leadership, in recent years the effectiveness and potential of it has been increasingly recognised. This has led to a several bodies, including the Systems Leadership group seeing the need to provide for its dissemination and development. The Academy and its partners within the group have pooled resources to develop programmes that specifically address the development needs of system leaders, reflecting the above distinct characteristics of systems leadership.


Despite the relative simplicity of the exposition of systems leadership and the evidence of it being successfully applied in practice, none of this is straightforward. Leaders who have been trained in and progressed successfully to senior positions through demonstrating organisational leadership competencies can find ceding authority and power and the required shift in mind-set and qualities remarkably challenging.


Looking to the future, the environment in which our leaders operate will continue to be characterised by change being the only constant. The complexity, interrelationships and interdependencies across systems is likely to increase. The need to collaborate, integrate and lead to secure better outcomes for people with increasingly constrained resources will continue. Given this, the need to develop in leaders the ability to operate across systems – of various and changing spatial and organisational dimensions – will become ever more important.


Public bodies, individually, collectively – and collaboratively – will wish to assure themselves that their leadership development activity recognises this and reflects the particular needs that system leaders are expressing and will have in the future.

The Academy, along with its partners, will continue to develop leadership offers to meet evolving needs

Systems Leadership Steering Group members include:


  • Association of Directors of Adult Social Services


  • Association of Directors of Public Health


  • Department of Health


  • Leadership Centre


  • Local Government Association


  • NHS Central Southern Commissioning


  • Support Unit


  • NHS Confederation


  • NHS England


  • NHS Improving Quality


  • NHS Leadership Academy


  • Public Health England


  • Social Care Institute for Excellence


  • The National Skills Academy for Social Care


  • Think Local Act Personal


  • Virtual Staff College

Chaired by:


  • Martin Reeves, Chief Executive, Coventry City Council


  • John Wilderspin, Managing Director, NHS Central Southern Commissioning Support Unit

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