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23rd November 2022

System Working and the Role of the Leader

Working in a system involves moving away from a individualistic perspective and employing a holistic approach. This is achieved by considering how different parts of the system interact with each other and recognising how departments, organisations or sectors can come together to deliver a vision and tackle problems [1]. Holistic thinking emphasises the complexity, dynamism, and entirety of the system and the interconnected and multifaceted relationships between the system components [1]. System leaders possess an unusual combination of attributes such as being ambitious visionaries, whilst having the ability to effectively engage varying stakeholder perspectives [4]. In this article, we will be exploring what it is like to be working in a system and the importance of system leadership.

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What Is System Thinking

Our health care system is a great example of the implementation of system thinking. This involves various numbers of health and care partners collaborating to set an overall system strategy, manage resources and performance, plan specialist services, and drive strategic improvements in areas such as workforce planning, improving clinical outcomes, and estates [2].

Systems thinking requires you to view the system in its entirety, rather than as separate components, in order to make sense of complex situations. This is particularly important when thinking about working with patients with long term conditions or when considering the wider determinants of health such as housing and education.

Research has identified four basic dimensions of systems thinking. They are [3]:

  1. Interrelated thinking— this dimension relates to thinking about how things are interrelated and connected in systems.
  2. Dynamic thinking— this dimension takes into account that things change over time. It involves re-looking at problems and paying attention to emerging patterns of behaviour.
  3. Thinking in models— this dimension is about having awareness that we often deal with complex situations by trying to oversimplify them.
  4. Systemic action—this dimension is about practical ability to lead and navigate the system.

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The Role of the Leader

Systems Leadership combines collaborative leadership, coalition-building, and systems insight to drive innovation and action across a large, decentralised network [4]. It is argued that system leaders have a dynamic, adaptive approach and are competent to navigate through ambiguity. Their leadership will extend beyond traditional boundaries, and they have high interpersonal skills, which enables them to create new relationships to deliver the system vision [5].  For example, an effective systems leader will adopt an adaptive and altruistic approach, with the aim of seeking consensus instead of a fixed self -centred approach, which is prone to creating a conflicting and competitive environment [6].

Their role entails facilitating large scale initiatives within the system that involve many organisations such as governments civil society organisations, unions, research institutions and others – combining their abilities to achieve a shared vision. System leaders are required to have certain characteristics which will enable them to catalyse and empower collaboration and collective action, rather than controlling or directing the action themselves. They should be able to relate and think from others perspective and have clear aim while being able to adapt to situations and hurdles. They are required to build evidence for the system change and should have strong communications skills that will help to persuade unconvinced stakeholders and maintain interpersonal relationships [7,8].

A helpful frame to consider when exploring System Leadership, is the NHS North West Leadership Academy’s System Leadership Behaviours Framework [9].

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How Can Impact Help You?

Here at Impact Psychology for Business, the team have extensive experience of working with existing or developing systems leaders and can support leaders who are working in complex adaptive systems to thrive. We offer various Leadership Development programmes that focus on applying and sustaining systems behaviours through a powerful blend of assessments, workshops, webinars, and coaching. Each programme is individually tailored to suit your needs and develop better leaders. We offer short system leadership training modules to help your leaders and managers build the skills they need in specific areas. Our workshops include topics like increasing resilience in leadership, handling challenging conversations, leading with courage and compassion and transformational leadership. To find out more, you can contact us here.

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 Useful Resources

  1. Burrell, et al (2021). Exploring System Thinking Leadership Approaches to the Healthcare Cybersecurity Environment. International Journal of Extreme Automation and Connectivity in Healthcare (IJEACH)3 (2), 20-32.
  2. Charels, A. (2022). Integrated care systems explained: making sense of systems, places, and neighbourhoods.
  3. Shaked, H., & Schechter, C. (2016). Sources of systems thinking in school leadership. Journal of School Leadership26 (3), 468-494.
  4. Dreier, L., Nabarro, D., & Nelson, J. (2019). Systems leadership can change the world – but what exactly is it?
  5. Begg, H. (2020) Systems Leadership Rapid Review conducted for the National Leadership Centre of the UK Cabinet Office.
  6. Leadership in integrated care systems (ICSs).
  7. Timmins, N. (2019) Leading for integrated care ‘If you think competition is hard, you should try collaboration’.
  8. Bigland, C., Evans, D., Bolden, R. et al.(2020) Systems leadership in practice: thematic insights from three public health case studies. BMC Public Health 20, 1735. doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-0964
  9. NHS Systems Leadership Behaviours Framework