Systems Leadership: An approach to sustainable system change

Today’s problems, be it poverty, hunger, human health, environmental degradation, and so on, requires coordination among many stakeholders. No one person or organisation can solve these complex problems, but different stakeholders must play their part in developing a shared approach. Solving these complex problems require coordination, vision, trust-building and innovation; in essence, it needs system leadership.

Systems leadership is an approach of achieving goals through innovation, collaboration and action that engage a broad network of different stakeholders to advance progress toward a shared vision of systemic change. This approach requires collective action. Everybody is involved in it, both at the individual level and at the organisational level. It is a set of abilities that any individual or organisation can use to facilitate the process of system-level change. It is a departure from the conventional hierarchical approach to implementing change.

Indeed, system leadership is a new term for leadership skills and capacity that can be effective in addressing systemic problems. There are three agents involved in achieving systemic change using this approach. These agents are – the individual, the community and the system. The individuals, as agents, drive Systems-change initiatives and their commitment and effort to sustain it. The community, on the other hand, is made up of stakeholders’ actors who interact and influence one another within the system. Knowledge and insight into the system to be changed are fundamental. For example, the system’s institutional policies and incentives and personal choices and behaviours. A system leadership initiative is characterised by – a systemic view, multi-stakeholder ownership and championship, appointed coordinators and facilitators whose role includes enabling of multi-stakeholder collaboration within the project, an ability to learn, adapt and change, a proven or potential influence on system behaviour.

Therefore, system leaders are individuals or organisations that support system-level change. They achieve this by empowering different stakeholders to act together in new ways to accomplish a shared goal – system change. System leaders can be found everywhere, at the local, national, regional and international level, influencing system change both within an institution and across networks of institutions. To achieve system change, system leaders need to build and apply these skills – understanding the system where the challenge exists, their ability to engage in and support collective action among relevant stakeholders, ability to listen, learn and lead through coordination with and empowerment of others. In fact, for system change to happen there is a clear framework of bringing it to manifestation. The process of bringing this change to manifestation consist of the following:

Convene and commit – this involves the exchange of idea by key actors to address a complex issue of common concern. The key actors delineate common interest and goals that they share, and commit to making a systemic change by working together in different innovative;

Look and learn – The key actors of the change process collectively map out the process and build a mutual understanding of the mechanisms, players and impacts that form the system and its present result, creating new intuitions and ideas.

Engage and energise – Different system change actors are involved in continuous communication to develop trust, commitment, innovation and teamwork. What can help drive progress and maintain the energy is encouragement, incentives and indicators (signpost);

Act with accountability – Although it is the collective aims, objectives and values that set the shared goals and principles that set the way of the system change initiative, it is the act of accountability that help track the process. Also, as the idea mature, management and governance structure can be created.

Review and revise – Stakeholders should review the progress of the initiative regularly and consequently, they should adopt the strategy accordingly. Implementing an agile, flexible, innovative and learning-centred approach allows for evolution and experimentation.

Throughout the initiative, this process may overlap or repeat in a circle, meaning that it must not follow a chronological order.

Besides, the journey of system leadership is a process that unfolds over time. Hence Systems leaders across the sectors often encounter similar motivations, experience or realisations in the course of their journeys to achieve system change. These recurring insights referred to as the “Aha! Moments”. While not every initiative or individual experiences the same feeling at every moment of the development and implementation of the system change initiative, one of these moments, frequently appear across many Systems Leadership stories. And they are that:

“No one is in control”: individuals and organisations can influence the behaviour of a complex system, but not direct or control the process. In other words, no single entity has authority over the entire system.

“It’s up to us”: Stakeholders identify a mutual responsibility to tackle the “system challenge” themselves, Sharing liability for collective and effective action.

“Everything is connected”: By Collectively mapping and learning about the system, new initiatives are generated, thereby helping you appreciate the interplay within complex systems.

“That’s our North Star”: The stakeholder community defines a shared goal or vision to pursue. They guide and align their efforts towards that shared goal

“To go far, go together”: It is vital to build powerful multi-stakeholder coalition through securing the engagement of an eclectic array of stakeholders

“We’ll find a way”: Leveraging on challenges and setbacks can stimulate innovation and collaboration.

“I can make a difference”: An individual, small group or organisation can make a significant impact.

“We need coordination”: A coordinating team or secretariat is essential as the initiative grows, to support collective action.

“Wow! Change is happening”: Celebrating and keeping account of every progress helps maintain the drive.

“We are in it together, for the long haul”: For long-term success, there must be a reaffirmation of the commitments, as the needs evolve.

Finally, though the systems leadership approach is still in an “early stage of development”, evidence points to some individuals who have shown the embodiments of a system leader. In Africa, we have Nelson Mandela, who inspired collective leadership, leading interventions geared towards addressing the challenges of his country collectively. There is a hunger for real change, and the strategies in place seem not to be effective. Rather than a sense of fatalism, this should galvanise efforts towards seeking new paths and approaches that will ignite more profound change. Hopefully, more system leaders will arise and catalyse collective change.


Uchechukwu Anagboso

This article is written by Uchechukwu Anagboso for the Christopher Kolade Centre for Research in Leadership and Ethics (CKCRLE) at Lagos Business School (LBS). CKCRLE’s vision is creating and sharing knowledge that improves the way managers lead and live in Africa and the World. You can contact CKCRLE at

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.