Alastair Mitchell-Baker


The unprecedented challenge for systems leadership; are we up to it?


Public sector leaders within the UK have been presented with an unprecedented opportunity. The Government faces the massive challenge of delivering more for less whilst devolving power within an increasingly complex political landscape amid continued economic and social volatility. The bold first movers in ‘Devo Manc’ are overseeing an unprecedented transfer of power to councils from central government within the Greater Manchester area to enable the NHS and councils work together to deliver bold and deeply ambitious plans. The same permissive autonomy is rolling out across the country in patches as politicians of all colours and local NHS leaders come together in new alliances.

We have worked with some progressive councils recently: they’ve been characterised by a commitment to radical transformation and innovation whilst continuing to deliver an array of complex services. Increasingly they are positioning themselves as commissioning-led or indeed commissioning-only organisations – usually in partnership with others; police, NHS, schools, local businesses and other councils. This new way of working requires new ‘system leadership’ capabilities from both political and organisational leaders.

Minding the Gap

System leadership has increasingly come to the fore in local government and the NHS. But what is it? Ghate, Lewis and Welbourn[1] describe system leadership as “an attempt to effect change for the social good across multiple interacting and intercepting systems, resting on the assumption that better and more efficient public services can result from more joined up working across multiple service sectors.” System leadership is inherently a collective form of leadership which operates across boundaries. There is also a need to understand, respect and work with different cultures, legislative frameworks, political systems and mindsets – what I call ‘minding the gap’.

Many public sector organisations are aligning with partners to deliver more efficient services, intervene earlier to prevent and reduce demand, and influence each other’s spending. A typical upper tier council may directly spend £30M on its commissioning function, to manage a directly commissioned spend of over £1 billion and influence with partners a combined spend of over £7 billion from the public purse.

The opportunities available from good system leadership is enormous. Significant gains can be had in efficiency and effectiveness by exploiting some of the apparently ‘easy’ alignment opportunities. Examples around health and social care for older people and children, or back office sharing across emergency services spring to mind. However to achieve even these benefits has proved extremely challenging.

Counterintuitively different?

The challenge of leading internally within an organisation is very different from the external requirements of system leadership and there are increasing opportunities for personal development and support[2]. Systems leadership requires very challenging skills around engaging, influencing, aligning and co-working with others (see for example Timmins[3]). Leaders might require new and very different skills and approaches from those that brought them to the top of their organisations. Above all as those at the front line tell us, it requires perseverance. A bloody minded ‘we will make this work somehow’ perseverance. This often particularly demonstrated by those who feel a strong natural attachment to their local patch – ‘their place’ – because they or their children were born there and they now live there.

The contrast is also seen in the field of organisation development. Typically OD practioners are working within organisations to ‘loosen’ or free up’ things up across rigid informal and formal structures and processes. New ways of thinking and working by engaging wider groups within organisations helps release energy and shape new directions and ways of doing things. However the emerging literature around OD in a system working or pan-organisational context, stresses the need for a different way of working with much more ‘loosely coupled’ stakeholders. Here the need is often to create ‘loose-tight’ connections – loose on ‘how’ and tight on ‘why’. Understanding Sinek’s Golden Circle is critical here. Often what is required in system leadership and OD may be counterintuitive to that which is needed within organisations.

Up for it, up to it?

The unprecedented challenge of system leadership in an increasingly devolved political system will require a new leadership and OD approach to be consistently developed and embedded. How can we identify and nurture and develop leaders with the right attributes to be great system leaders? How can we develop collective leadership across our varied public sector organisations with their sometimes conflicting goals in a world of increasing austerity? Are we up for it? We have no choice. But are we up to it?

To discuss your system leadership challenges please contact Alastair Mitchell-Baker at