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Climate change, complex health needs and mass migration are amongst the wicked problems that society faces today. What leadership qualities are needed to collaborate and tackle these systemic challenges?

In partnership with Power to ChangeRIO and Sheffield University Management School, the RSA is delivering a programme that will explore the unique leadership challenges faced by community business leaders. I’ve written two blogs relating to that programme: the first focussed on what leadership is not (e.g. a function of seniority or job title) and the second on addressing the fact that, contrary to popular usage, ‘leadership’ is a verb rather than a noun i.e. it’s about taking action rather than being a ‘thing’ that can be ‘put in a wheelbarrow’.

I also argued that we have to nurture a new type of leadership that doesn’t depend on the illusion of extraordinary individuals and that the leadership of the future will not be provided simply by individuals but by groups, communities and networks. In fact, because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can also celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, “Where have all the leaders gone?” But if we worry that there’s a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy. Even in the community enterprise sector, there is still an over-emphasis on the individual ‘hero-leader’ which perhaps reflects our tendency to look to business for answers rather than developing approaches that make sense in an environment that is very different.  Instead, we need to look around us, to look locally and to our networks. And we need to look at ourselves.

Today we face a host of systemic challenges that are beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Problems like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, youth unemployment, public health, the mass movement of refugees and migrants, and embedded poverty and inequity require unprecedented collaboration among different organisations, sectors, and even countries. Reflecting this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade—locally, regionally, and even globally. Yet more often than not they have floundered—in part because they failed to foster collective leadership within and across the collaborating organisations.

Peter Senge et al [1] identified three core capabilities that ‘system leaders’ develop in order to foster the collective leadership that is needed:

  • The ability to see the ‘big picture’

In any complex setting, people typically focus their attention on the parts of the system most visible from their own view point. This is powerfully demonstrated, for example, in the work of Prof. John Seddon[2] who argues that focussing simply on reducing unit costs to save money in public service delivery actually ends up increasing overall costs, that many ‘efficiency measures’ create costly ‘failure demand’ and actually reduce efficiency, and that quality systems usually undermine rather than enhance quality of service delivery. Helping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organisations and service users/citizens to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursuing symptomatic fixes to specific parts of the system.

  • Encouraging reflection and more generative conversations.

Reflection means thinking about our thinking, understanding our individual and organisational ‘maps of the world’ and appreciating how such mental models may limit us. As we’ve seen only too often in government and elsewhere, ‘leaders’ who seek to drive their own pre-determined change agendas seldom improve a situation despite the best of intentions. Instead, system leaders work to create the space where people living with a problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time. Knowing that there are no easy answers to truly complex problems, system leaders cultivate the conditions wherein collective wisdom emerges over time through a ripening process that gradually brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being.

  • Shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people to articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together - enabling, facilitating, trusting, sharing, creating bottom-up solutions. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation.

Even in these times of austerity, I believe there are reasons for optimism. Instead of being overwhelmed and withdrawing, we can act. Growing the capabilities to become a more effective system leader is hard work. It needs to happen in difficult settings and under pressure to deliver tangible results. You need friends, partners and colleagues who share your aspirations and challenges and will help you face difficult changes while you also attend to your own ongoing personal development—balancing work time with time for reflection, action, and learning. That is what the RSA’s community business leadership programme is all about. But change is possible – and this is why we need to step forward for what we care about. After all, it’s just our turn to help the world.


[1] Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton & John Kania, The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social Innovation review, Winter 2015. See


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