News and Comment

Learning from Systems Leadership – what role for OD and HR leaders? Reflections on OPM-PPMA joint summit

Thursday 5 March 2015


Last month, OPM hosted a summit, along with the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), to explore the latest learning about ‘systems leadership’ and its implications for the role and practice of OD/HR leaders and practitioners.

It was a great opportunity to exchange the emerging learning about this challenging but exciting approach to leadership thinking and practice and explore the OD and HR questions it raises. With over 60 participants from across local government and health, it is clear that many in the OD and HR community see the need for this too.

Sue Goss shares her thoughts alongside panellists (from left to right)
Kerry Furness, Debbie Sorkin and Liz Goold

Why this event?

Systems Leadership[1] –  an approach to leading across organisational, sector, professional boundaries at different levels and places – offers the kind of collaborative and collective leadership that will be increasingly needed to handle many of the complex ‘wicked’ issues facing public services, like integrating services or preventing ill-health that  cannot be resolved by acting alone. This approach, by its nature, can also challenge existing models of leadership, cultural norms, working methods and workforce skills. OD and HR professionals can bring a lot to these challenges. They also need to be at the centre of this wider conversation and emerging practice at different levels – from supporting leadership at community level through to equipping senior leaders to effect whole systems change – as well as modelling systems leadership themselves.

With a growing body of research and practice in systems leadership and as we approach an election, OPM and PPMA saw this summit as a timely opportunity to take stock and ask – how might OD and HR professionals apply this emerging learning to equip our organisations, localities and communities for an even more challenging future? And what might this mean for their role and practice?


The day itself

Debbie Sorkin, the National Director of Systems Leadership at the Leadership Centre joined the panel with Liz Goold and Sue Goss from OPM and Kerry Furness, the OD lead for PPMA – all bringing a rich mix of experience and expertise in systems leadership thinking, development and practice in public services, as well as OD. The summit involved stories and input, small group and plenary conversations and an Open Space session.


Systems Leadership Is



What are we learning about systems leadership?  

We explored lessons from research and practice ‘in the field’, along with participants’ own experience. Debbie spoke of many incidences of real progress being made in Local Vision places and NHS Pioneers, as part of the national Systems Leadership programme, for example, Wakefield, Wiltshire, and North West London. She shared factors that have helped systems change and leadership to flourish, for example:

  • Being willing to cede organisational goals in service of a collective ambition;
  • Going wider than you originally thought – involving people in communities – as that’s often where the energy and creativity lies;
  • Not being bound up with formal roles – willingness to experiment and take risks;
  • The crucial importance of shared purpose and strong/honest relationships to weather the storms; and
  • Having a coaching and support network.

Further learning about the difference that systems leadership can make will also be made available through an evaluation of the Local Vision pilots that is currently underway, commissioned by the Leadership Centre – so watch this space.

Sue Goss shared stories from her experience as a ‘system enabler’, including a vivid account of her work with one integrated health and social care board where there was much ‘dancing around’ the partnership table, avoiding the difficult conversations which then escalated into conflicts. For Sue, the systems leadership perspective here means, “informal meetings, having honest, difficult conversations, careful design of formal meetings, making sure the right people are in the room – talking to those who are not –  getting the right work done in advance, and understanding each other’s perspectives. Some of the most important meetings happen in Costa Coffee”.

This approach may mean re-focusing attention on where the differences are, not just where there is consensus. It sees conflict as useful – if it is creative – rather than being used to avoid the difficult issues. At the same time, this disturbance can cause much anxiety which needs to be acknowledged and held to enable creative, courageous thinking and wise action without minimising the scale of the challenge.

Many OD practitioners (including myself) will see this as familiar territory but what systems leadership offers, is the opportunity to move OD thinking and practice out onto a much wider, cross- organisational, cross-cultural, cross-sector and cross-systems canvas. Several commented on the day that this challenged their own mind-sets and models of OD. As one participant commented, “what shift do I need to make in my own model of OD?  How do I practise and model systems leadership as an OD practitioner?”.

Mindsets and behaviours needed

This led into a conversation about the mind-sets, behaviours and skills needed by systems leaders. Drawing on international research and practice, the model below illustrates different inter-related dimensions of systems leadership – with improving social outcomes at its heart. Above all, it emphasises that systems leadership is a mind-set or approach, rather than a set of technical skills or competencies. The Virtual Staff College has commissioned a helpful synthesis paper outlining this model further.

Sue Goss also shared a draft paper from her practitioner experience that develops these dimensions further, which will be circulated more widely shortly. Reference was also made to related research on the ‘21st Public Servant’ carried out by INLOGOV and the University of Birmingham.


Systems Leadership: Exceptional leadership for exceptional times,
Virtual Staff College 2013


Many recognised that OD and HR leaders/practitioners also needed to model, integrate and feel confident with these different dimensions, if they are to be (and be seen as) systems leaders themselves. As one participant commented, “we need to up our game”.  Others recognised this approach also surfaced dilemmas and tensions between contradictory paradigms and competing demands that needed to be navigated “what happens when system leadership thinking – emergent, distributed, complex – hits up against more structured/conventional expectations of OD? How do we deal with the tension between complexity, collaborative working & accountability?”.


So, how might these mind-sets and behaviours be nurtured and developed?

Different examples were shared by colleagues of developing, promoting and influencing systems leadership including national place-based programmes, local joint commissioning leadership programmes (see Kerry Furness’s article in the Municipal Journal for more info), in-house workshops for senior leaders and action learning sets, engaging politicians with public health professionals and supporting community-level action with parish councils. Creating the conditions for these to happen often involved exercising systems leadership, as well as using the key principles in their design. For example, the national ‘Leadership for Change’ programme, where I am co-Residential Facilitator, is run by Virtual Staff College as part of a systems leadership alliance, including Public Health England, The Leadership Centre, NHS Leadership Academy. Design principles involve:

  • Senior leaders (e.g. local government, public health, CCGs, Third Sector) learning together from the same locality – through ‘place teams’ rather than just as individuals;
  • Effecting change, as well as deepening learning by experimenting and working on live systems leadership challenges in-between sessions, in their locality, supported by a place team coach; and
  • Creating synergies and connections with leaders from across different sectors. A Third Sector programme participant commented on the value and power of developing fresh perspectives, challenging assumptions (her own and others) and developing new relationships that were unlikely to happen otherwise – and how different this was to other leadership programmes that often just involved individual leaders from the same sector.

Key questions for exploration – Open Space

The conversations generated a number of themes and questions, some of which we explored further in an Open Space session. These included:

  • The big Why? Who or what is this ultimately in service of? – How do citizens, communities, patients remain at the centre? Is this about re-distribution of power, social good, behaviour change? To what extent does it point to larger social questions e.g. democracy? How might we see systems leadership as part of creating a social movement for change?
  • Creating a narrative for systems leadership and our role in it – How might we find innovative ways of telling a story of the impact of this kind of approach and the added value we can bring, often in unseen ways? How might these stories speak to/engage others, e.g. politicians?  How might ‘the business case’ be framed in a different way? (i.e. can we afford not to, given where we are heading?). The evaluation of Local Vision pilots may be helpful here.
  • How to build capacity/take systems leadership forward from an OD/HR perspective? – Are current leadership programmes enough/fit for purpose? What other approaches might we take informed by systems leadership principles? How do we develop our own understanding and practice as systems leaders? What can good OD thinking and practice also bring to the table?
  • Engaging with senior leadership – How do we help them create the right conditions for promoting/modelling systems leadership – and what if they’re not? What crucial conversations do we need to have?
  • The role of politicians in systems leadership – How do we engage with them meaningfully?
  • Do we know what is already happening in our own organisations/what else is going on out there? This led to one group mapping out what was already happening in relation to systems leadership nationally as a basis for building on existing or making new connections rather than duplicating and building a LinkedIn group for participants – all part of systems leadership!

The next cohort of the Leadership for Change programme will be running in June/July 2015.

Do we know what is already happening in our own organisations?
What else is going on out there?


Taking systems leadership forward

Some useful pointers for taking systems leadership forward from an OD/HR perspective from the Open Space session included:

  • Don’t try and do it top down or organisation wide all at once – go where someone has a problem where it might help to move things forward – go where the energy is;
  • Help identify values and behaviours and ‘simple rules’ with a more systems focus;
  • Find some energy or friendly faces and just have a go – start small and use what you have;
  • Break away from the ‘usual suspects’ – use cross slice working bringing the right skills together – knitting together different perspectives-use informal networks;
  • Upskill OD/HR business partners in key skills to facilitate systems leadership activity and offer those services more;
  • Develop your own narrative from this experience that speaks to those you are seeking to connect with/mobilise;
  • Engage senior leaders – be prepared to have the difficult conversation;
  • Involve politicians from the start and all the way  through, not just ‘reporting back to’ at the end. Engage in creating a shared story with them; and
  • Probably best not to give it a label – just approach the work/problem using the principles.

The last point is a helpful one, as it may be more important to integrate and apply the underlying principles in everyday practice rather than get too hung up on a label. Developing a shared narrative of these principles and finding practical ways of applying them, would help with that. As Debbie remarked, “OD and HR people in local government and health need to develop their own narrative of systems leadership and see themselves as central to it”.

We also see many synergies with principles underpinning more contemporary approaches in OD and change, which could enrich and deepen systems leadership work. Likewise, with community capacity-building work. OPM has been exploring these synergies with PPMA members recently, as part of some action research, which you can read out about in this article from the Municipal Journal. We see a real benefit in OD practitioners, systems leaders and those involved in community engagement bringing these principles together – as part of a shared narrative and practice.

As indicated before, systems leadership is more of a mindset and approach than a list of tools and techniques. By its very nature, it helps to widen your lens – or indeed, apply different lenses, wherever you are in the system. It means connecting with the disconnected, going beyond the ‘usual suspects’ or traditional networks, getting multiple perspectives into the room, having the right conversations, thinking beyond the individual ‘hero leader’ and organisational boundaries and paying attention to the relationships and patterns between. It will constantly ask, ‘who or what is this service of?’ – keeping citizens, communities and patients at the centre. It is not by any means the ‘silver bullet’ and does not intend to discount or replace other forms of leadership or management – but it may well challenge them. If basic management processes are not in place, then arguably, a systems leadership approach will struggle to add value – but on their own, they are not enough.

This approach to thinking and leading across multiple systems can be challenging all round, including for the OD/HR system(s) itself but given the difficult times we face, this approach does seem very relevant and in need of attention and support. OD and HR leaders and practitioners have a key role to play here and need the appropriate support and development themselves.


Action and feedback

“Very thought provoking and energising event, met some useful contacts for follow up sessions that I now want to do locally and also useful to promote our regional plans for an OD Systems network”.

“I thought the panel part of the session with the practical examples was really valuable – and hearing the different experiences on the ground”.

“This event supported the bringing together skills at comparable levels across numerous organisations which allowed for productive debate and sharing”.

From the conversations and feedback at the event and since, it’s clear it has stimulated thinking and connections and supported a clearer sense (belief even?) of the central role that OD/HR has to play in systems leadership – as well as the courage and confidence to give it a go.  From the individual commitments made on the ‘commitment tree’ at the end (see flip-chart notes) and feedback received, it’s clear there is a lot of energy and momentum to do just that in different localities, as well as in individuals’ own practice.

Commitment tree
The Commitment Tree


Follow-up – support and next steps

  • PPMA want to build on the energy and interest in the room for developing communities of practice and connections with other OD/HR networks across sectors. Based on feedback after the event, Kerry Furness will be contacting PPMA regional chairs about the possibility of repeating similar events in regions. Please get in touch with Kerry or your regional chairs if you are interested and with any further ideas you have;
  • OPM and the Leadership Centre are available as a resource for those who want any further support in taking systems leadership forward (see contacts below);
  • Following feedback, there is a desire to explore themes and practical examples/methods in greater depth. For example, a joint event is now currently being explored for OD/HR practitioners with NHS Employers around health and social care integration and what OD and systems leadership can offer, in particular the cultural implications;
  • Connect with each other – a contact list from the event will be made available and use the LinkedIn group being set up!;
  • The Leadership Centre is currently developing a workbook, The art of Change Making, that will offer an important resource and will be available shortly;
  • Sue Goss’s draft paper, Systems leadership – A view from the bridge, is also a resource from a practitioner perspective. She will be writing a blog on this shortly – so watch this space;
  • Share this write-up and the resources attached with your networks to share learning, stimulate interest and build connections; and
  • Ultimately this means us all taking responsibility for creating spaces for individual and collective reflection on practice- and giving systems leadership a go, wherever you are in the system.

This event was a collaborative endeavour between PPMA, OPM and the Leadership Centre and we sought to exercise systems leadership ourselves by drawing on our respective networks and creating the conditions for conversation and connections to support learning and change – and we hope this will continue and spread. We are all keen to hear your own stories of how you are  influencing, developing and modelling systems leadership wherever you are, the steps you are taking, however small, what you are learning, what changes are happening – and let’s see where the energy takes us!

Contact us

If you would like to connect with us and build on this momentum, please contact:



The Leadership Centre:


Download documents

PowerPoint slides

Flipchart notes

Virtual Staff College Synthesis Paper


[1] ‘Leadership across organisational and geopolitical boundaries, beyond individual professional disciplines within a range of organisational and stakeholder cultures often without managerial control (or formal /professional authority). The intention is to effect change for positive social benefit across multiple interacting and intersecting systems’ Systems Leadership: Exceptional Leadership in Exceptional times, Virtual Staff College (2013)