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Systems leadership – the only show in town

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Joe Simpson, director of The Leadership Centre, an independent charity linked to the Local Government Association, writes for PSE on Systems Leadership, a new cultural paradigm.

Over three years ago, a number of national bodies came together recognising that health, social care, public health and local government are going to have to work together as never before. 

Partly, this is due to financial pressures. Partly, it responds to the desire of citizens for better-connected, more integrated services that focus on wellbeing and what communities can do for themselves. 

But we will not be able to meet public expectation and demand unless these are accompanied by shifts in the way we all think about how we behave, what we do and how we work together. 

The evidence shows it works 

For the past three years, a national Systems Leadership programme has supported people in places around the country as they grapple with these new ways of working. The results provide strong evidence that Systems Leadership – people sharing leadership across boundaries – works. It can change mindsets, shift behaviours and lead to better outcomes for services and individuals alike. 

Starting with a small number of place-based experiments to identify the skills and qualities that enable cross-organisational working, the Steering Group’s activities have expanded through programmes such as Local Vision, Leadership for Change, supporting the health and social care Integration Pioneers and working with directors of public health and their teams up and down the country – reaching over 3,000 people, sharing insight, tools and approaches with top teams front line staff and service users and communities – always focusing on real work of benefit to the health and wellbeing of our population. 

Breaking down the barriers 

Challenges faced in this way of working are numerous: bodies being reticent to cede control; wariness of doing something new or different; and the complications around one agency investing and another accruing the benefits. 

But we’ve also seen lots of success once these barriers are broken down, and people in places have gone about this in different ways – but in all cases focusing on relationships, putting the citizen front and centre, and developing leadership at all levels within a system. 

At a recent conference we were delighted to launch an independent evaluation conducted by University of the West of England, ‘The Difference that makes the Difference’. This has proved invaluable in learning from what we are doing, and that “there is good evidence of its (Local Vision’s) ability to catalyse change, influence new ways of working, and build commitment and momentum in relation to ‘wicked’ issues.” 

Working with complex issues that have multiple causes (issues that we can improve or make worse) requires a way of addressing these issues that recognises their complexity and inherent messiness. It requires us to consider this very human activity as a living process, one that recognises the multiplicity of relationships and connections, one that recognises our ability to adapt to situations in order to make something new that addresses our needs. To share this learning as widely as possible, the Leadership Centre on behalf of the Systems Leadership Steering Group, with the assistance of our ‘enablers’ and people we’ve worked with, collated a vast number of tools, approaches and ways of seeing the interconnected human world and how you might intervene for positive effect. The publication ‘The Art of Change Making’ brings this to you in a ‘guide’ type format. 


On 3 December 2015, many of those involved in the work so far joined together to reflect on learning and achievements in the last three years and how this might help us tackle the challenges of the next three. 

Participants heard from colleagues who have some real stories of progress when implementing systems leadership approaches, such as Kelechi Nnoaham, director of public health at Plymouth Council, noting “change only happens at the speed of trust”, showing that there needs to be significant work on relationships to enable much more integrated, responsive services. 

Whilst it’s been so encouraging to see some of the amazing progress being made in places up and down the country, the Systems Leadership Steering Group is clear this is just the beginning. A movement has started, and is gathering pace, with an emphasis on shared ambition and real work. We do not underestimate the size or scale of the task. That is why we have launched the Systems Leadership Hub, sharing learning and experiences of work in places, and as a repository for publications looking at the continuing work of the group. 

The Systems Leadership Steering Group is pleased with the progress that has been made so far in enabling Systems Leadership as a new cultural paradigm, but realise there is much more to do. 

As the landscape changes the approach needs to remain a fluid concept, but as Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry Council, remarked: “(Systems Leadership) really is the only show in town.”


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