People crossing a road

Systems leadership: What is it? What is it for?

Kate Simpson

Latest posts


As we look to step up to today’s ecological and social challenges and help our organisations and communities navigate these complex times – we are reaching for leadership approaches that speak to our interconnected and shifting world.

Systems leadership is one such approach. But what does it actually mean? And how do we do it?

Systems leadership has come to refer to two different (though potentially reinforcing) things.

Some advocate for it as a way to do leadership that recognises the nature of organisations but is agnostic to their purpose. Others advocate for systems leadership as a way to achieve positive outcomes from our leadership, driven by a sense of purpose to address social or environmental challenges.

A way to do leadership

The agnostic version of systems leadership is about seeing our organisations as ecosystems – alive with relationships, history, hopes for the future, beliefs, values, culture, personalities, and flows of resources. It is also about recognising that our organisations are subject to events beyond our control.

Systems leadership asks us to see our organisations less like machines and more like gardens, and ourselves as gardeners, not mechanics. In this context, leadership is about building collective efforts, it’s about seeking perspectives and voices from the margins. It is about tending to the enabling conditions and not just today’s presenting problems.

We can do all this stuff and still (mostly) do it in service of the current ‘system’ – that is the outcomes that our organisation, civic society, national politics and so on currently serve.

An outcome of our leadership

The purpose-driven version of systems leadership is about the pursuit of systemic change. Here we refer to the work to change the structures, rules of the game, relationships, beliefs, values, and so on that create the current state.

Let’s take as an example – food systems. At most national scales, and certainly, at a global level, the current dominant food system is wired to produce as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible.

To do this, it is built on a value set that talks of ‘natural resources to be extracted’, it measures land by productive value, prioritises private ownership and seeks efficiency. As such, our food systems have stimulated amazing advances in technology that improve the productive quality of land, increase the size of animals, and speed up the process of harvest.

This is a system that produces large quantities of food (though not equally distributed) and has allowed people in many parts of the world, such as the UK, to move their labour away from farming and towards other jobs.

It is also a system that has degenerated nature and promoted diets that damage our health.

By some estimates, we only pay a third of the true cost of our food – the remaining costs are externalised upon our environment and health care systems.

Food systems leadership is not just about changing how we do leadership inside our ‘food-producing’ organisations but also addresses the nature of the very system that produces food. It is about shifting the mindsets that determine the way we relate to nature, the relationships between producers and consumers of food, the policy and legal frameworks that shape who can own land, the incentives that determine subsidies and ultimately the purpose of food systems.

This sort of systems leadership is going on all over the place and at all scales. It is happening at the level of individual farms that adopt more regenerative practices (such as Ghyll Bank Farm here where I live in Cumbria, Northern England), all the way through to the global level efforts such as the UN Food Systems Summit.

At Wasafiri we have contributed to a number of these systems leadership efforts including the Food Systems Summit, the African Food Fellowship, and the Climate Change COPs which are finally recognising that food systems must account for a third of our net emissions reductions.

A way to lead AND a reason to lead

Leading system change does require we show up as ‘systems leaders’. We must be committed to elevating the voices and power of the marginalised (including the natural world and even future generations), be willing to operate without certainty; knowing that what has gone before won’t hold the answer to what we need to do next; accepting that traditional hierarchical power and control modes of leadership are simply inadequate.

However, just showing up in these ways is not, in itself, a guarantee of system change.

One could use a ‘systems leadership’ approach to run a large agricultural business (or a single farm) – and do so in the pursuit of the same outcomes as it has always produced.

Leadership for system change needs us to both operate differently as leaders and pursue different sorts of outcomes from our leadership – the sorts of outcomes that will create a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world.