A synopsis of systemic leadership

The systemic approach challenges conventional wisdom about leadership, its purpose, development and application. It questions where we should be looking for answers. It states that those searching for improved leadership should view the challenge from the organisation’s end of the telescope, particularly asking ‘what does the organisation itself need to do – especially on itself?’

So-called systemic models are sometimes used to describe a form of management development that is shaped by an understanding of a particular organisational context, but the action usually remains individual leader development. An organisation development-based approach to leadership, combined with principles from systems thinking, goes further and treats the organisation, and not the individual manager, as the target meriting our attention and needing to change if the organisation’s leadership is to be released and used to support the business and benefit its stakeholders.


A truly systemic approach to leadership deals with questions such as ‘How does the organisation engage with the leadership process, and how in turn does leadership activity engage with the organisation’s issues?’ and ‘What is happening in the organisation, and what needs to happen, if managers’ leadership endeavours are to flourish?’ As The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective expresses it, meta-leadership questions for organisations include ‘How can the organisation help itself to become better led as an entity?’ and ‘How can the organisation best understand, expand, release, promote, improve and apply its leadership capability?’.

The popular discourse

Contrast these aspirations with the popular discourse that thinks and talks about leadership improvement in terms of developing individual managers’ leadership qualities and abilities, favours training courses, and engages in discussion with business schools, leadership academies, etc. In the traditional model, leadership’s ambition is usually limited to individual managers and their jobs and careers. Beyond that level, the model assumes that an organisation’s corporate requirement for leadership will be met by dint of sufficient individuals choosing, often alone, to use their personal agency against the closed door of organisational forces that favour the status quo. Rarely does anyone accept responsibility on behalf of the organisation for the closed doors or think of opening them to make acts of leadership easier, safer or more frequent. Rarely is the system in which the managers work and try to exercise leadership the first port of call when seeking improvement.

Who holds the trump cards?

On its own, a model that locates leadership in individual managers – especially in a limited number holding senior positions – is incapable of transforming the organisations of which they are a part. The alternative is to think of leadership as a property of those organisations, indeed a special asset, with relational and social capital to be realised beyond the individual managers. Those organisations themselves, rather than the individual managers, HR, or trainers and developers, hold most of the trump cards when it comes to taking improvement action, that is action grounded in the organisation’s ways of working, action that will have a lasting corporate benefit. And organisational assets need managing: ergo leadership needs managing if it is to be applied and to ensure that it is used beneficially.

We have allowed a preoccupation with leadership’s need to be developed to happen at the expense of its need to be managed. And we have allowed the grounding of leadership in the individual to obscure the organisation’s interest in building and using its leadership capability effectively, functioning as a whole system.

What’s going on in the organisation?

Leadership’s state of health can be diagnosed only by examining what is going on in the organisation rather than in individual managers and leaders. This is the place to start. It calls for a ‘whole systems’ perspective instead of the usual reductionist/atomistic approach that isolates, breaks down and fixes parts, such as an individual manager’s skills or, say, a leadership competency framework. In a holistic approach, the state of leadership, and the key to its improvement, is found in the way the organisation comes together and works successfully as an integrated system. Among other things, that means being aware of the gaps and spaces. It means attending to the glue that binds people to their organisation and to one another, or alternatively keeps them stuck among dysfunction, stasis and under-performance.

The metaphor of a fishtank

This metaphor is a powerful way of communicating this idea. Instead of observing the ‘fish’ and wanting to polish them to shine more brightly (and then plopping them back in the same old dirty water) it is important to see beyond the fish and notice the quality of the fishtank and what surrounds the fish, something that our gaze does not naturally do. People – managers – notice and become obsessed with the fish. Unless one owns a fishtank. Most owners take responsibility for providing their fish with a high-quality environment, but where the equivalent responsibility rests in an organisation is often unclear and unmanaged. Yet, removing toxins and adding nutrients is one of a leader’s prime systemic responsibilities, in turn enabling the expansion and distribution of leadership throughout the organisation, freeing up leadership to flourish. All the fish can then shine. But this is about much more than the well-understood matter of an organisation’s climate, and more than feeding the fish: the tank itself needs to change.

People’s experience of the system

When people work in organisations, they frequently cite and blame ‘the system’ that they experience everyday. It accounts for their performance and frustration. Think of the fishtank as everything that is going on around and between people – especially managers – in their organisational context and surroundings that impacts on their ability to exercise leadership. This includes such things as where power lies, who can speak to whom, how people are held to account, types of incentive, etc.

The system shapes managers’ perceptions over such matters as where responsibility lies, their freedom and courage to act, and what is required of them in their jobs – are they, for example, expected to make a corporate contribution, one that goes beyond their job description? If so, what prompts that? How individually can they be part of a well-led organisation as a whole – or is that always something for others ‘higher up’? When it comes to creating perceptions and practicalities, the system sometimes helps and sometimes hinders, opening some doors, at the same time closing others.

Managers’ daily encounters and frustrations provide them with insights about what leadership ought to be doing to improve the way the system works. That can be their leadership role too. But to do this, they need to be able to ‘see’ the system, understand that they are part of it, see that they have a role in relation to it, and have permission to exercise such a leadership role.

The two-way relationship

Organisations and leadership enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The exercise of leadership affects the system, but the system also affects and determines what leadership can achieve. So while the leadership process is used outwardly to bring about improvement in how well the system works, it must also consider how the leadership process itself is working and how it too needs to learn and improve. Thus the leadership agenda looks two ways: on the one hand it has an outward concern with what leadership is needed for, how it will be applied, and by whom – which then needs managing. On the other hand, leadership must develop and enhance its own capability. There are therefore issues of both supply and demand. Too often a development agenda is one sided, being supply driven by the provider’s agenda, not giving enough thought to what the organisation is doing and needs to do beyond saying that it supports development.

Why is systemic leadership so important, and why now?

No sentient being can remain unaware of two things: first, how many organisations fall well short of their potential. Many fail to capitalise on the goodwill and ability they have at their disposal. People’s capacity for leadership is massively wasted.

Secondly, there are glaring institutional systemic failures in society. In the public sector consider various policing incidents, banking collapses, child deaths in local authorities, uncontrolled defence procurement. Media reports concern both how well or poorly organisations succeed in meeting the demands placed on them (for example, failing hospitals), as well as their internal organisational health and wellbeing (for example, having a blame culture). Such issues imply failures of systemic leadership, rather than individual leadership (though individuals are often blamed and punished to satisfy public and political thirst for blood). In subsequent enquiries an individual perspective usually leads to pressure for greater compliance in future (‘doing things right’).

In contrast, a systemic perspective results in double-loop learning and reform by asking whether what we were trying to do was best (‘doing the right thing’). Only the latter approach can result in corporate improvement and the organisation as a whole becoming better led.

Conventional leadership development isn’t working

It is not obvious that current ways of developing leadership produce continually improving organisations, ones that steadily become better led as a whole, let alone experiencing reform or transformation. Rather, the development industry remains largely focused on replenishing talent at the individual and job level. The current process of defining, developing and delivering leadership appears not to be an adequate response to evidence of system-wide leadership needs.

Need to refocus management and leadership

Much is now known about the real and messy nature of organisations, that they are complex, chaotic and unpredictable systems; that they respond less to formal planning and control than managers find it convenient to believe. Just as with people, much is hidden behind the facade. A formal system has a shadow system that contains powerful yet natural and very human forces. Yet, the assumption followed by many managers, developers, and business schools, remains: that the ‘rational-technical’ model of how to manage and lead still applies, especially when push comes to shove. Its familiar but ultimately doomed method may be summed up as: if something isn’t working, then find a stronger leader, drive harder, produce better plans, incentivise people to work harder, monitor compliance. It doesn’t work.

In place of targets

The 1997-2010 Labour government believed that public-sector reform was best brought about via the Number Ten Delivery Unit. Its tool of choice was uniform, externally mandated targets, regulations and standards. When this didn’t work (whether or not it had originally achieved benefits) the succeeding Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government reduced the number of targets and offered greater local freedom to public-sector organisations.

But there was and is a philosophical and practical vacuum. This needs answering because the target culture resulted in managers becoming unhealthily dependent on external decision makers for setting standards and priorities. In the absence of such direction, many managers want to know who and what should now drive their choices. There is an opportunity to return to the work of W Edwards Deming, a founding father of total quality and a force in systems thinking. He argued that the cause of management was a never-ending journey of organisational improvement. That gives a new meaning and impetus to the leadership part of a manager’s job.

A needed response to managers’ environment

Today’s environment has changed in many ways. For example: technology has enabled easy and rapid communications between individuals. Information is more widely available and less dependent on the manager as the source. Less deference is shown, and the necessity for hierarchical power and status differentiation is less obvious. Assumptions about the need for organisationally driven extrinsic motivators is being challenged by the attractiveness of personal intrinsic ones, especially when the need to hit targets is less absolute, and diversity is acknowledged and valued.

We know more about the real nature of organisational dynamics, which renders redundant the metaphor of the organisation as a machine to be controlled, along with a host of HR policies and practices that derive from Newtonian physics. Isaac Newton envisaged the world as having the characteristics of a big clock whose workings could be understood through the process of analysis and the analytical method. Newton’s low-level model is problematic when applied to higher-level systems. The language of simple machines creates blind spots when used as a metaphor for human and social systems. The latter are infinitely more complex and dynamic. It can be counterproductive to treat a complex dynamic social system like a simple machine.

We now better understand the powerful influence of the system (the ‘fishtank’) that surrounds people in their work. This is a substantial determinant of their performance, compared with their personal ability. Deming put the figure as high as 80%. Yet we still discuss, appraise, evaluate and develop the individual’s contribution, performance and capability, while largely neglecting the system. We regularly seek to improve the former and rarely question the latter.

The new leadership agenda

There is an economic efficiency imperative in these stringent times. And there is a mood for reform. A new leadership agenda is long overdue. Reform based on continuous improvement can come about only if larger leadership forces are marshalled via more managers having a share in leadership responsibility. Leadership needs to be released.

In the systemic mind, leadership is required to achieve two linked goals for the organisation: safeguarding the future while also delivering current business. ‘Delivering today’ is the short-term goal when managing within the present system and its constraints. By contrast, ‘making tomorrow better than today’ is achieved by challenging today’s paradigm, in order to continually improve the system. The needs of tomorrow becomes managers’ second goal; that is, when they are in leadership mode.

One of the key aims of systemic leadership methodology is to activate, manage and hold to account this second half of a manager’s job – leadership.