Systems leadership builds on systems thinking but goes further, putting the theory into practice. In its simplest formulation, systems leadership is an attempt to effect change for the social good across multiple interacting and intersecting systems, resting on the assumption that better and more efficient public services can result from more joined-up working across multiple service sectors. Systems leadership has been identified as a potentially powerful response to the particular contemporary conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (referred to by some using the acronym VUCA) – indeed, as possibly the only response that may help leaders to navigate in such times. Other, more traditional or familiar forms of leadership – those focused around single organisational or agency remits, reliant on the deployment of resources over which leaders and managers have direct authority (so-called ‘command and control’ approaches), and using mandate derived from hierarchical position – are manifestly weak in the face of such conditions. Experience shows us that logic-based, linear approaches to problem solving are not an effective approach to wicked issues characterised by paradox, and the non-linear, ‘emergent’ nature of systems leadership both as a construct, and in practice, seems intuitively to be a better fit to the challenges of the present moment.
The findings of the study suggest that systems leadership is characterised by two key attributes. Firstly, that it is a collective form of leadership: systems leadership is ‘leadership as participation’ rather than ‘leadership as performance’, and although it is individuals and not systems that produce change, systems leadership by definition is the concerted effort of many people working together at different places in the system and at different levels, rather than of single leaders acting unilaterally. Secondly, systems leadership crosses boundaries, both physical and virtual, existing simultaneously in multiple dimensions. It therefore extends individual leaders well beyond the usual limits of their formal responsibilities and authority.