Meet Your Peers - Sally Giles
Sally Giles on Systems leadership for public sector leaders
Over recent decades, the environment for public services has become increasingly challenging and complex. In response, more emphasis has been given to interagency co-operation and systems leadership, although effective systems leadership can be extremely difficult.
Based on a detailed literature review and twelve semi-structured interviews in a case study partnership, this study reaffirms the importance of systems leadership for public services, whilst highlighting certain barriers that can reduce its effectiveness. It makes recommendations for future improvements.
- Many issues facing the public sector (such poverty or obesity) are deeply complex (‘wicked’) social problems requiring cross-boundary co-operation to resolve them in an increasingly challenging and complex environment.
- Systems leadership has been described as a ‘mind set’ of overlapping dimensions, rather than a collection of observable technical skills or competences.
- Participants can have widely varying understandings of the ‘system’ and its leadership, and lack shared understanding and commitment.
- Partnerships may neglect the essential (and difficult) work of developing effective local strategy and local focus by focussing on national agendas, projects and tasks.
- Team building across the system and improving staff capabilities to undertake systems leadership are important.
- Systems leaders need to develop their own individual capabilities, but work is also needed on the system and the community. Systems leadership must be facilitated at each of these levels.
- Developing systems leadership locally could be supported by facilitated workshops focussing on the development of shared understanding, shared vision, team building and a collective narrative which helps communication with key stakeholders within and without the system.
Many issues facing the public sector (such poverty or obesity) are deeply complex (‘wicked’) social problems requiring cross-boundary co-operation to resolve them. The environment for public services in the UK and beyond is increasingly challenging and complex. The leadership required to be effective in these complex and uncertain environments is variously described as collaborative, distributed, dispersed or systems leadership.
Systems leadership can be a complex and difficult option, with high transaction costs, extended time frames, and an ambiguous link to improved outcomes. This research therefore explores the conditions under which theories of systems leadership have relevance for leaders of public services, investigating the extent to which a systems leadership approach has been adopted in a case study partnership, and whether the approach conforms to, or falls short, of an ideal type drawn from the academic literature, and how further improvements can be made.
What we knew already
Systems leadership draws on insights from systems and complexity theory, which maintain that the component parts of a social arrangement can best be understood through their relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. In complex adaptive systems, large numbers of components or agents adapt and learn how to best meet desired outcomes, and solutions tend to emerge rather than being imposed. The constant changes taking place within the system and the external environment mean that it is impossible to predict what will happen next. The leadership required in this type of system relies on learning, creative and adaptive capacity.
Systems leadership has been described as a ‘mind set’ of overlapping dimensions, rather than a collection of observable technical skills or competences. Examples of these dimensions are ways of feeling, perceiving, thinking, relating and doing. Such leaders need strong skills in analysis, synthesis and creating a narrative which simplifies complexity, galvanises stakeholders around a key purpose, and motivates them to continue difficult and demanding work in the face of uncertainty and challenge.
Systems leadership may not always be an appropriate response to all leadership challenges or situations - practitioners need to reflect on the right response before acting. In particular, leadership within an organisation (likely to be more command and control oriented) is different from the leadership required when working with complex problems and across boundaries in an inter-organisational space (which is likely to be systems leadership).
Systems leadership is not an easy option. Aspects of the operating or authorising environment can hinder systems leadership, such as a lack of support from senior managers or politicians, bureaucracy and hierarchy, inspection and regulation and the tension between partnership and contractual arrangements. The complexity of the operating environment can limit effective leadership. And time pressures can lead to a focus on tasks and easily measured goals. In response, leaders may choose to avoid systems leadership and resort to ‘command and control’ or the use of technical or process-type solutions.
Understanding ‘the system’ and its leadership
Most of the interviewees in the case study Child and Mental Health Services partnership had a broad agreement that ‘systems leadership’ involves collaboration across boundaries, however beyond this there was wide variation in definitions given. Similarly, often people from different organisations understood the term ‘system’ differently. A frequent approach was to define systems leadership in terms of common goals or a common vision. But there were also examples of extreme differences, from a view of systems leadership as imposed in a top-down way by government, to that of effective systems leadership requiring a kind of bottom-up or emergent moral imperative.
There was a widely held view that the understanding and practice of systems leadership varied from organisation to organisation and from individual to individual. Most individuals had developed their understanding from their training, roles and exposure to role models. Collective understanding and collective commitment, in the form of shared vision, shared strategy, shared agendas or shared values were widely viewed as key facilitators of systems leadership but in many situations a shared local understanding has not yet been developed.
Developing collective understanding
In focussing on tasks, projects and process (often driven by national agendas), partnerships may neglect opportunities for developing effective local strategy and local focus. The work of developing this local focus can be threatening to partners. The comment of one LA strategic manager clearly exemplifies the issue:
I don’t think we really understand each other’s issues, and I don’t think the system would feel particularly safe enough to explore these in a candid way.
(LA strategic manager)
One useful starting point is to think about the outcomes for the people or groups the system is designed to support, for example improving children’s mental health. What are the real priorities in the specific local area, which might differ to a national set of priorities? This needs to be at a much more detailed level than a headline outcome (such as ‘improved mental health’), for example looking at a very local level to understand needs and available resources and co-producing the analysis and action plan with relevant communities.
Developing the team
Team building across the system and on improving staff capabilities to undertake systems leadership are important. Systems leaders can usefully see themselves as a virtual team, requiring similar investment to organisational teams. For example, operational managers may benefit from support to move from a typical ‘command and control’ approach. The most commonly cited skills needed for working effectively across systems were problem solving, listening, emotional intelligence, humility, facilitation and meeting skills, and the ability to negotiate and influence without wielding traditional levers of power.
Tackling complexity and lack of time
Complexity, such as a fragmented commissioning landscape or complex governance and contractual arrangements, can negatively impact on the effectiveness of systems leadership. Complexity can also impact on the ability to shape and communicate a narrative about the state of the system, its progress and challenges. Partnerships should take time to understand the complexities involved, their impacts, and also to consider whether all this complexity is necessary.
Another recurrent theme in the case study was extreme time pressure, that participants felt impacted on relationship-building, problem analysis and strategic planning. Helping partnership members to prioritise this work is an important aspect of system leadership.
Systems leadership is an important skill for contemporary public service organisations, but the research highlights that there is a lack of practical guidance within the literature to support systems leaders to develop their understanding of how to operationalise this style of leadership.
Systems leaders need to develop their own individual capabilities, but also requires work on the system and the community. Systems leadership must be facilitated at each of these levels: the onus is not exclusively on an individual, superhuman leader, but on the wider system and community, and on government to create an appropriate culture and environment.
Developing systems leadership locally could be supported by facilitated workshops focussing on the development of shared understanding, shared vision, team building and a collective narrative which helps communication with key stakeholders within and without the system.
About the project
This research was a Master’s dissertation as part of the MSc in Public Management and Leadership, completed by Sally Giles, supervised by Jason Lowther. The programme was funded by Coventry City Council and Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. Sally can be contacted at Sally_Giles@sandwell.gov.uk.