What the systemic leader knows and understands

A systemic leader is a senior manager who spends some of his/her time consciously in a leadership role. Listed below is what he or she recognises, knows and understands. You can use this to test where you stand.

Form a group and exchange your views and experiences in relation to the following questions. Then try to agree what action the organisation could take to develop a culture where systemic leadership flourishes.


  • Leadership activity is not confined to top management, or tied to elites or authority.
  • There is a need to distribute leadership widely through and down the organisation.
  • The manager’s role breaks down three ways: managing, leading, and supervising others who have a leadership role.
  • Those formally designated as leaders may spend only a little of their time leading.
  • The personal risk entailed in taking a leadership role, accepts the risk to the organisation in avoiding/neglecting this role; and knows that frailty can cause managers to default to the management role.
  • Leadership can be a vital part of anyone’s job, however fleeting.
  • An organisation’s leadership capability and capacity can be expanded and delivery enhanced by many means other than developing individual managers as leaders.
  • There is a symbiotic relationship between leadership and the organisation as a system, and the system affects leadership as much as leadership affects the system.
  • Leadership is needed to make change, while leadership itself needs to be changing.
  • Leadership is needed to improve the system, and that one of the ways the system needs to change is to make it more enabling of people’s leadership.
  • Relying on the human agency of individual leaders alone doesn’t work: systems can disable even the most capable leaders.
  • Individual leaders can be effective only if the system is actively supportive at the same time.
  • Systems have considerable negative power, with an in-built tendency favouring the status quo.
  • The system has to do a lot to enable change to happen, but very little to prevent change from happening.
  • Managers experience obstacles from the system (including colleagues) when they try to lead.
  • Change strategies that rely on a critical mass of colleagues are rarely sufficient or successful.
  • The organisation itself is the main player in improving leadership, not a mere client or grateful vessel waiting to have leadership poured into it.
  • Managers will not voluntarily take a lead if the organisation fails to provide them with a clear direction, a clearly accountable job, challenges and security.
  • If you want to find leadership, don’t search for a leader; start by looking inside the organisation and see what is happening.