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10 tips for systems leaders

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Learning, People and culture

A system is a group of individuals or an organisation working together or interacting as part of a network.  We believe that everyone in the public sector should be a systems leader.

That means being a leader in a system, rather than a leader ofsystem. Here are ten tips to help you embrace your inner systems leader. 

Photograph of the team in discussion

1. Put the citizen at the centre 

From the moment you scope out a problem to the moment you start designing a solution, you  should put the citizen at the centre. It’s also important to establish collective understanding of situation, identify mutual areas of interest, and the shared vision of the outcome you want. 

2. Mobilise people 

Identify partners across the system and work to understand their perspectives. Challenge your assumptions on who is relevant and who isn’t. If everyone is familiar to you, then perhaps you haven’t mapped widely enough. You should encourage people in your teams to build networks too. Recognise all perspectives are valid. Look to build relationships around areas of mutual interest. 

3. Keep learning 

Take the time to learn about the situation. Be realistic about the time it will take to undertake the work. This may involve managing expectations of others. 

4. Promote collective leadership 

Try to prioritise building trust and a good working relationship with people across the system. This takes time but go for informal coffees and actively listen. 

5. Work through tension 

Tension and conflict are to be expected, so try to focus on the areas of mutual interest. Identify incentives. You shouldn’t seek to change or block others plans unless they seriously undermine the collective endeavour. 

6. Navigate the politics 

Do your best to navigate through the internal and national politics. It’s a worthwhile thing to do given the long term nature of systems change. Understand power structures, including where informal power lies, organisational structures, reporting lines, decision rights, accountabilities as well as culture and history. 

7. Be flexible. Co-create solutions 

Be flexible in co-creating solutions by encouraging iteration, adaptation and evolution. Don’t start with a fixed idea of what the right answer looks like.

8. Secure resource commitments 

Secure commitments from the system. Invest in a small central secretariat function ideally staffed from different stakeholders. Get the right people in the room regardless of grade. The person with the highest grade may not be the right person. 

9. Establish accountability 

Work out who is accountable for what. People should have a clear mandate to operate. Agree how to monitor progress, setting appropriate targets for the stage of project. 

10. Work out the risk appetite 

Work out the level of risk different stakeholders are prepared to accept. Agree a shared approach to risk across the system. 

These top tips were developed by the Cross-government Systems Leadership and Accountability Group sponsored by Nick Dyer and Paul Kett. This group is made up of volunteers from the Department for Education (DfE), Department for International Development (DfID) and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Thank you to everyone who helped shape and develop these tips. Particular thanks go to Karen Clark from the Organisation Development, Design and Learning Expert Service.

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  1. Comment by Benjamin Taylor posted on

    • Replies to Benjamin Taylor>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi Benjamin, thanks for taking the time to visit our blog! This is exactly why we published this piece - we want people to engage with it, challenge us and suggest improvements. We're looking forward to meeting you on Tuesday to continue the conversation!

  2. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    Good list. As a positioning for systems thinking leadership, you might also find that Myron Rogers Maxims might be helpful. It tends to ground leaders into the workplace to understand their role and how the system works:
    - People own what they help create
    - Real change happens in real work
    - Those who do the work, do the change
    - Connect the system to more of itself
    - Start anywhere, follow everywhere
    - The process you use to get to the future is the future you get.

    • Replies to john mortimer>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Thanks John, people new to systems in particular will find this very useful. We really like 'people own what they help create'. It's good way to succinctly say that the onus isn't just on 'leaders'.

  3. Comment by Joe Callender posted on

    I promote the idea of imagining leadership as a resource available for anyone on a team to pick up and utilize. Move it from role-based to resource-based.


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