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Space person (3
Space person on the moon

Place is not, as we noted in an earlier blog, ‘the answer’ to the question of how to build systems leadership, although it can help. Developers of leaders and leadership in complex systems should consider also a focus on space-based leadership. 

Space, in contrast to place, is unknown: boundaries are uncertain, landmarks absent, the rules unclear. In this, space is much closer to the conditions which pertain in complex systems than the concept of place, with its clarity around where the start and end-points lie, who is in and who out, where it is located in time and geography. What might a space-based approach to leadership development look like?


Space-based systems leadership development invites leaders to let go of certainties and step into the unknown. In this, it challenges the accepted wisdom of ‘how we do things round here’. History supplies many examples of leaders who pushed at, transcended or ignored the prevailing physical, political, social and psychological boundaries. Many of these people were, in their own time, ridiculed, ostracised, faced opprobrium and worse by edging out on a limb into space. Much easier for the early suffragettes to ‘know their place’. Far safer for Dr King to stay in his hometown and not to take his message out across America. Less risky by far for Nelson Mandela to leave control of place to others, at least in the short-term.

One of the first requirements for space-based leadership development, then, is to create spaces in which leaders can explore, and experiment with the sometimes counter-cultural nature of a systems leadership approach. Risky endeavours are often best undertaken collectively – in any case, systems leadership is a contact sport and systems change is a long game. In our development programmes we encourage leaders to think and plan for the long-term and to develop trusted relationships, networks and communities of peers.


Systems leadership development must ensure its focus is not only on those in the room but also on the wider system which they represent, in place and time. Leaders sometimes miss the opportunity to map the course of their and the system’s development journey in ways which serve the needs of those who follow. We know that systems are different and there are no guarantees that what has proved effective in one place will have impact in another or that a successful strategy will work as well next time. Nevertheless there are lessons to be learned and shared.  One important element of systems leadership development is on building the skills of explorers – curiosity and courage, communication and mapping.

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06  – which students of US history will know well – identified many lessons for explorers as they sought to understand the wider and unknown landscapes of the American north-west. For example:

  1. Education is a requirement: Lewis learned how to use a library and took many books on the journey.
  2. Keep a journal: Lewis and Clark’s journals are an important record, allowed them to reflect as they explored and allowed others to learn from their exploration.
  3. Have plans and goals: Jefferson had questions he wanted answers to such as “How many volcanoes?”
  4. Consider previously-explored areas as a jumping-off point. Each time you come back to the start-off point you venture further, even if people say ‘we’ve been here before’
  5. Acquire local information & knowledge. The terrain was new to Lewis & Clark but not to the people who lived there so they used local cartographers where they could.
  6. Make a wise choice of team. Lewis and Clark thought carefully about individual skills AND about how people would work together
  7. Expect and plan for rough water conditions - they are inevitable and not a sign that you’re going wrong
  8. Nay-sayers will tell ‘bear stories’ to scare explorers; people are fearful of the unknown
  9. The timetable for the journey will be altered by unforeseen circumstances so allow for slippage
  10. Be prepared to hear many different languages and learn how to communicate with people who don’t speak your language

 Many of these lessons from over 200 years ago have real relevance for those who seek to develop and practise systems leadership in the 21st century.

At the University of Birmingham many of our programmes adopt and use these principles.  For example, on the programme for Aspiring Public Health Directors we encourage participants to keep a journal for reflection and capture of learning. We enable them to listen to and ‘learn the languages’ of others in the system, through meetings and visits, and we use case studies and narratives to build understanding and the resilience to deal with inevitable setbacks.


Space-based leadership in complex systems is an exploration of the unknown and therefore leaders need to be able to put aside their ‘knowing’ and recognise that their perceptions are precisely that – perceptions and not the inherent ‘truth’. In complex systems there are multiple truths, all of them valid.  This can be a challenge for leaders, many of whom have built successful careers on knowing many things. Learning to not know is a vital aspect of systems leadership development. On our programmes we explore this through experiential exercises, learning sets and interventions which push participants out of their comfort zones. One alumna described this process as ‘getting comfortable with the discomfort’.

It is difficult to lead in complex health and social care systems. Yet without managing risk, undertaking exploration, and learning to unlearn, leaders are unlikely to achieve the expectations of systems leadership..  For all who design and deliver systems leadership development, there is a need to support leaders who boldly go into the unknown, learning to navigate and lead in space.

Belinda Weir, theme lead for systems leadership at the Centre for Health and Social Care Leadership. @weirb4