A point-by-point overview of systemic leadership

This overview is an extract from the book The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective and comprises:


  • Definition
  • The essence of the approach
  • The various leadership levels
  • Strategies
  • Managing leadership
  • What the systemic leadership model is good at


‘An improvement model based on an understanding of the organisation as a system that uses an OD approach to improve both leadership and the organisation, affecting the way leadership is applied, managed and developed.’

For appropriate leadership to flourish, the organisation’s persona itself needs to be firmly in the frame. The systemic approach permits this by combining management development and organisation development psychology and techniques.

The book and its diagnostic tool shine a light on what goes on, and what needs to go on, in the organisation if appropriate leadership is to come to the fore. It helps managers to see and understand what they need to do with their leadership energies, ideas and skills to help the organisation. And it helps the organisation in turn to permit and assist leadership in these terms and enable it to flourish. Using the systemic approach, organisations reclaim control of the leadership agenda and take practical responsibility for making system-wide improvement, both of leadership and using leadership.

The uncomfortable truth about leadership in organisations – its identification, development and application – is that it is more challenging and complicated than the popular mindset and the army of developers that depend on it would have us believe. It cannot be left to individual managers to try to succeed as leaders.

The quest to improve organisational leadership reaches beyond the familiar focus of individual leadership to embrace ‘leadership of, by and for the organisation’. This approach is very different from the traditional, individual-focused aim of leader development.

The new model:

  • recognises that all the organisation’s stakeholders have a legitimate interest in improved business leadership
  • addresses factors in the organisational ‘system’ that have a bearing on the practice and delivery of leadership
  • concentrates on outcomes (organisation improvement), outputs (leadership practice), and not just inputs (leadership development)
  • recognises that development of individual capability is just one of a number of levers available for improving the organisation’s leadership.

Ultimately, organisational leadership is manifested through individuals. Within the systemic model these people provide personal leadership in a way that is mindful of the organisation’s needs, and the organisation makes this possible. The development of such leadership draws upon what is currently happening in and to the organisation

What is the essence of systemic leadership?

  1. It begins with a clear aim; namely, working on the organisation as a system to enable appropriate leadership to flourish so that, in turn, the enterprise will be well led.
  2. The organisation has to be clear about its particular need for leadership and pull a matched response into itself, and not be led by providers’ supply.
  3. It embraces the novel perspective that leadership is a key resource that needs to be managed.
  4. Managing leadership requires pulling on a wide range of levers in the organisation that influence the delivery of appropriate and applied leadership.
  5. The organisation is a system to be understood, a powerful force and contributor that can either open or close doors to improved leadership.

Everything else flows from this and is summarised below.

Leadership levels

Focuses on level 3 below, and uses this level to inform, drive and integrate leadership at the first two levels.


  1. Individual managers
  2. Managerial teams
  3. The organisation


  • Spreading the power of leadership to achieve improvement and change, by involving practicing leaders at all levels in both diagnosing and making the changes needed
  • Leveraging the organisation’s own distinctive contribution to improving leadership
  • Clarifying what is happening externally and internally to the organisation that has a bearing on how the organisation and its leadership has to adapt
  • Anchoring development activity in the organisation’s evolving context using OD methods
  • Considering all improvement activities, not just development programmes, including targeting organisation variables as well as people ones
  • Combining learning and doing (to shortcut the ‘learning transfer’ problem needed to realise organisationally applied benefits)

Managing leadership

It is not enough to develop managers as leaders and leave them to work out what to apply their new leadership skills to. Treating leadership as a key organisational resource, managing this leadership resource means:


  • clarifying and communicating the organisation’s own needs for leadership
  • improving the leadership culture and relevant systems and dynamics (alongside individual and team capability)
  • identifying what are the organisation’s enablers of leadership, and what are the obstacles and removing them
  • targeting for improvement action both leadership development and applied leadership practice
  • linking individual, collective, and whole-system leadership
  • balancing and integrating supply- and demand-side issues
  • aligning the organisation’s structures, systems and processes to support leadership
  • taking a range of action along the employment spectrum
  • discovering the numerous gaps down which leadership and its potential falls and is wasted, and taking appropriate action

What the systemic leadership process is good at

  • Raising managers’ awareness of what leadership means in their organisation, how the organisation and leadership need to change, and the part they can play in this
  • Changing managers’ perceptions; for example, that:
  • the way the work works (a systems perspective) is often more significant than the way the people work
  • a manager’s job is to improve the system and what surrounds people, more than to blame/improve the people
  • Saving money by not spending it on mass training to change people (who are only doing what the system expects of them and which can thwart them)
  • Distributing leadership by giving a large number of front-line managers the authority and wherewithal to help improve the way the organisation works and where and how it applies leadership
  • Building a state of discontent around aspects of the organisation’s current functioning (either of leadership or requiring leadership), and galvanising energy to do something collectively about it
  • Identifying strategic leadership priorities
  • Identifying needed shifts in the leadership style and culture
  • Considering what is in the organisation’s environment and the implications for leadership to act or change the organisation or leadership itself
  • Seeing the wider company picture and generating loyalty beyond managers’ narrow technical specialisms
  • Allowing the organisation’s norms to be held up for questioning
  • Enabling managers to discuss things that they would not normally find the time, permission or a safe environment to do
  • Revealing that the source of most problems are not a manager’s personality or lack of skills, but a system issue.