Systems leadership – the dangerous illusions and how to avoid them

Whilst we are still awaiting publication of Sir Stuart Rose’s report on the management of the NHS there have been plenty of newspaper leaks suggesting that he will back earlier work from the Kings Fund criticising the lack of ‘system leadership’ across the health system. The phrase system leadership is cropping up regularly now as the key ingredient to solving a range of long-standing public service delivery problems. The complexity of managing the linkage between health and social care may be the most pressing of these (and probably the most costly) but the same lack of leadership at a system level has been cited in areas such as integrated transport, city regeneration and regional growth, and school improvement.

Now I’d be the last to say that developing more effective leadership (at all levels) wasn’t a vital component in any attempt to tackle these seemingly intractable problems but it’s a tempting and I think dangerous mistake to think that a lack of systems leadership can be solved by just putting a strong leader in charge of the system. This is one of the illusions of systems leaders that I want to explore in this blog.

So why is systems leadership not like other forms of leadership?

Well first and foremost the systems we are talking about here – health and social care, primary and secondary education, the economy of cities etc. are complex. And by that I don’t mean just difficult – I mean the mathematical definition of complexity. A complex system is one made up from many elements interacting with each other and their external environment, and where the actions of each element affects those of their neighbours across a network of interdependence. For those of us (like me) brought up in the world of mechanical systems (cars, aeroplanes, production lines) complex systems have surprising properties. They can have sudden changes of output with no perceptible change in input, they are affected by their own history – not just the levers that are being pulled at that moment, and in many ways they are uncontrollable. You cannot predict precisely what impact any particular action will have on a complex system – it depends on the internal dynamics of the system itself and its interaction with its wider environment.

That doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands up in horror when we encounter a complex system – we all work with such systems in our everyday lives – most natural biological systems we come across behave this way. Every gardener knows that all their winter handiwork can’t be guaranteed to bear specific fruit on any particular day or to flower on demand. But that doesn’t mean that patient planting and hard work can’t shape the overall look of a flowerbed or improve the amount of produce from an allotment. The trouble is that when it comes to organisations and their management systems we’ve all become used to applying mechanical models, with the leader as the controller turning up or down inputs of fuel or money and expecting a predictable response. Leading in a complex system just isn’t like that.

Three dangerous illusions of system leadership

The first illusion is one I’ve mentioned already – the myth that there are simple structural solutions to systems leadership problems. Its easy to think that a system as fragmented as that of health and social care would be improved by putting someone in charge of the whole thing – either nationally or locally. But in complex systems the power of a central leader to determine specific results is an illusion. (If you want to see what it feels like, try controlling some of the ecosystem models at or similar sites.) Leaders can of course change important parameters and then watch and learn from the dynamics of the response – but they have also have to learn and accept what they cannot control. The problem is that the public (or at least the press) expect a leader to get results – and quickly judge them a failure if they don’t. And that is a very deep set belief to shift.

The second illusion is that of cause and effect. This is the myth that every bad (or good) outcome can be traced back to its root cause and then all a leader has to do it eliminate the bad roots and duplicate the good ones and the whole system must benefit. But in a complex world that is not the case – outcomes can arise spontaneously from the interaction of multiple causes. And even if you could repeat these exactly in a different part of the system you won’t necessarily get the same result. Now to an engineer like me this is a profoundly unsettling concept. It means that experiments aren’t repeatable, and putting in twice the effort won’t get twice the result. It all depends on context and the way local parts of the system interact with each other. To understand that you need to understand how people and organisations are connected and how they are likely to respond to those around them. But whilst that it never going to be completely consistent it’s not random either.

My third illusion of system leadership is the myth that success depends on finding common goals and win-win solutions. In my experience many of the people working in these complex situations don’t have common goals (expect in the very broadest terms). They tend to have very specific local goals that they care about deeply – and most of all they’d like their leaders to leave them alone to get on with delivering them. It’s not that people don’t care about the bigger picture or the goals of their neighbours – its just they focus on their own. Of course it’s great if there are opportunities to build solutions where all the parties see outcomes they recognise as a win. But to think that that will always be the case – or to keep on searching for the design of a win-win solution to the exclusion of getting started on a course of action is another leadership delusion. At times accepting and handling the conflict that must arise from different goals within the system is a key part of leadership – and the evidence of conflicting goals being argued over can be a sign of successful system not a failing one.

And how to avoid them…

Don’t get me wrong – I think more, and more effective, system leadership is vital to tackle many of the big problems we face in society – but that’s not going to be a simple or a quick fix and we have to avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve described above along the way. I’ve got a few pointers as to the direction that I think any investment in systems leadership development needs to go in as starters which I intend to expand on in a future blog:

  1. The ability to share control is essential – it’s a truism that you can’t be a system leader on your own. A common feature of all the health and social issues that system leadership looks to address is that they are served by many different organisations with overlapping remits and conflicting priorities. Leaders across the system have to learn how to share control for the long term – and that means putting in place all sorts of mechanisms for collaboration: pooled budgets, joint targets, dispute resolution, shared knowledge bases etc. It also means convincing funders and customers that sharing control is a sign of strength not weakness and long-term partnerships between suppliers can result in better more efficient service not a reduction in competition and an increase in costs.
  2. Look for ground-up adaptive solutions – there is a great quote in a recent paper from one of the founders of system thinking Peter Senge where he says “system leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and can eventually cause the change to be self-sustaining”. In other words the most effective thing that system leaders can do is to create an environment (of incentives, re-usable resources, and positive feedback) which encourages people on the ground to develop their own solutions that suit their particular situation. Pretty obvious you might say – but it takes courage as a leader to say I don’t know where the best answers are going to come from and I’ve got no plan to design them myself – but I trust that they will emerge.
  3. It’s not all about behaviours – the temptation is to tackle the perceived lack of system leadership by investing in training programmes and the like to develop specific sets of behaviours in potential new leaders. But in my experience changing behaviours is not enough. System leadership requires; the right system governance, shared access to timely information, and effective cross-boundary processes as well as good collaborative leadership behaviours in order to succeed. And these all need to be built in parallel.

We live in a complex interconnected world and we can’t wish that away by demanding simple solutions or one-dimensional leaders. Understanding what drives the dynamics of complex systems and how organisations (and the people in them) behave in conditions of uncertainty are key foundations in our search for systems leadership solutions to some of the more pressing problems of today.