This century has seen revolutionary advances in understanding how the mind and brain work. How we see what we see is fundamental to how we engage with the world around us.

Systems Leadership, for example, is a really hot topic in public services. It’s based on connectedness and influence, not on positional power. It is defined by the Virtual Staff College[1] as “…leadership across organisational and geopolitical boundaries, beyond individual professional disciplines, within a range of organisational and stakeholder cultures, often without direct managerial control.” Effectively it is a social movement.

In his article SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others[2], David Rock describes how much of our motivation driving social behaviour is governed by the organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward. In other words, social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the existential need for food and water.

The SCARF model summarizes these two themes within a framework of five domains of human social experience that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations.

  • Status: our relative importance to others.
  • Certainty; our ability to predict the future.
  • Autonomy: our sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness: our sense of safety with others.
  • Fairness: our perception of fair exchanges between people.

Place-based Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) for Health and Social Care are a prominent public example of services requiring skilled systems leadership. Our question is whether the insights from the SCARF model can help delivery of this highly complex challenge to systems leadership?

Here we take each of the 5 domains in turn and offer some brief observations on where systems leaders can most profitably focus their attention in their STP work:

  • Status. Individual leaders (and their organisations) will inevitably experience some level of threat to their status. The research shows that even labelling it is an effective technique to reduce the threat response. Collective attention to the issue then enables difficult conversations about relative status to be explored actively and imaginative solutions found.
  • Certainty. The “transformation” word is really threatening for many people as it disturbs their certainty. Among other approaches it can be mitigated though treating transformation and continuity as a dual strategy, a Polarity. It will also help to break strategic complexity down into small planned steps – the work of good programme and project management.
  • Autonomy. Paradoxically Health and Care systems have never had such high levels of autonomy as they have right now. The threat to individual and organisational autonomy, however, is real. Rock argues this driver can be mitigated through the offer of options rather than imposition of a single solution.
  • Relatedness. A leader’s sense of safety is contingent on trust and mutual relatedness. Small groups also tend to be safer than large groups. Buddying, mentoring or Action Learning groups can play a key role in the intentional development of relatedness in an STP system. Even one single trusting relationship can help!
  • Fairness. Great care has to be taken to outlaw a “winners and losers” culture, which is easier said than done. Ensuring all stakeholders are encouraged to exercise their voice (however inconvenient) and get a fair hearing goes a long way to mitigating the impact of final decisions, as do transparency, increasing levels of communication, clarity of expectations and ground rules.


The STP Revolution will not be televised. But maybe the SCARF model gives us a robust scientific framework for understanding how people can change their minds about how they look at things.

What do you think?

Roger Greene,


[1] Systems Leadership. Exceptional Leadership for Exceptional Times, Synthesis Paper, October 2013

[2] NeuroLeadership Journal, issue 1, 2008,