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Why is system leadership important?

Patrick Guthrie, Head of Public Service Reform, Essex County Council, explains why system leadership is an important building block of public service transformation.

System leadership is the ability of leaders to collaborate across organisational, cultural and other boundaries and to lead whole systems to deliver better outcomes for the people we serve.

There is lots of material out there on system leadership, but fundamentally system leadership is distinct to more traditional models of organisational leadership, which have a more hierarchical approach to leadership with a focus on organisational goals and priorities.

Advocates of system leadership do not say that traditional organisational leadership is wrong. Clearly there remains a role for hierarchical models of leadership and delivery against organisational goals will always remain important given the need for leaders to be accountable for the delivery of outcomes and the spending of public money in their organisations.

But a purely organisational leadership model is very limited and the nature of the challenges facing public services increasingly requires a system leadership approach. A system leadership approach is particularly important in helping us to:

  • Put the user/resident first. A system leadership approach starts with the whole needs of the user/resident rather than with organisational remits. This helps to avoid situations where services and contacts with users/residents are fragmented and not joined up.  This is particularly important in dealing with vulnerable residents who may have multiple needs and who could otherwise be bounced around the system.
  • Tackle our demand and financial challenges. A system leadership approach seeks to reduce demand and cost across the whole system.  This helps to avoid situations where individual organisations make savings that just shunt demand and cost on to other organisations.  It looks at predicting demand and putting in place early interventions wherever in the system they are likely to be most effective.
  • Tackle our complex challenges.  Complex challenges – like raising economic growth, responding to the needs of an ageing population or tackling health and wellbeing equalities – cannot be dealt with by single organisations or by multiple organisations acting in isolation from each other.  A system leadership approach seeks to build long-term and co-ordinated action to tackle these challenges, as we are doing for example through the Essex Vision.
  • Unlock the potential of our staff and our communities. System leadership helps us to engage with and empower our communities and also to empower our staff to be innovative and to work across silo boundaries.  This can help to unleash creativity and energy that would otherwise remain untapped.  Systems leadership – with its emphasis on open engagement, feedback and more generative conversations – also really helps organisations to embed a culture of learning and sharing of best practice and experiences.
  • Integrate services and commissioning. System leadership helps us to integrate services and commissioning across organisations to develop new service delivery models and to generate efficiencies.

 Patrick Guthrie

 18 September 2017






The table below sets out how organisations and individuals need to change when shifting from an organisational leadership model to a systems leadership model.