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Systems leadership can make a difference in the world, but what exactly does it mean?

This week, activists and world leaders gather in New York to address the climate crisis as well as the slow progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The calls for systemic changes are growing louder. It is an inspiring goal, but how do we get there?

It is not easy to transform complex systems, such as the energy or food system. This requires coordinated action from people with different perspectives. Many systems-change initiatives involve hundreds of organizations, including governments, corporations, civil society organizations and worker associations. They combine their capabilities to achieve a common goal.

People who can catalyze, empower and direct large-scale actions are often the ones behind these initiatives. These are often called system leaders.

We looked at examples of system leaders who worked on different issues all over the globe and discovered striking similarities. No matter if they are community activists or global leaders, systems leaders often use the same tactics and have similar experience leading complex, large-scale initiatives. In an effort to encourage others to adopt and refine this approach, we have compiled a list of key elements and success factors for systems leadership .

Systems leadership: A tool for our times

Systems leadership refers to a combination of skills and capabilities that can be used by any individual or organisation to support, facilitate and catalyze system-level changes. It is a combination of collaborative leadership, coalition building, and systems insight that mobilizes innovation and action in a large, decentralized network.

Two examples of what it might look like in practice are shown below. Christiana Figueres was the global diplomat responsible for the 2015 Paris Agreement. She stressed practicality, flexibility, and collaboration in order to get all stakeholders on board. This led to the signing of the historic accord. A community organizer, Najari Smith, founded a new venture called Rich City Riders in Richmond, California. This initiative brought together community members, local businesses, and the city government to tackle the interconnected issues of employment, health, and environmental sustainability for low-income communities of color.

Although they operated in different areas, these two leaders used similar strategies: They combined a deep understanding and ability to align diverse stakeholders around common goals.

Systems leaders combine unusual skills and attributes to mobilize large scale action for system change. They are smart, ambitious visionaries, with strong management and execution skills, much like many leaders. They are humble, patient, skilled facilitators, and can engage stakeholders with divergent priorities and perspectives. Instead of occupying the spotlight, systems leaders see their role in catalyzing, enabling, and supporting widespread action.

Systems leadership in action

Systems leadership is well-suited for complex problems that require collective action. No single entity can control them. The approach can be challenging due to high transaction costs, unclear outcomes, and lengthy timeframes. This approach is most effective when complex problems cannot be resolved by other means.

The ‘CLEAR Framework for Leading Systems Change’ distilled five essential elements of the system change process into a framework. These five elements may not be in a sequential order. They can overlap or repeat in different cycles over the course of an initiative.

  1. Convene and agree

To address complex issues of mutual concern, key stakeholders engage in moderated dialog. They identify shared goals and interests, and agree to work together to achieve systemic change. The We Mean Business Coalition, for example, engaged over 1,000 companies to support ambitious, science-based climate policies and made more than 1,500 commitments.

  1. Learn from others

Stakeholders can create a system map together to gain a common understanding of the systems components, actors, dynamics and influences. This will allow them to generate new insights and ideas. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition focuses on specific areas of the nutrition system and works to scale up market-based solutions and target vulnerable populations.

  1. Engage and energize

Continuous communication is key to ensuring stakeholder engagement. It builds trust, commitment and innovation. Incentives, milestones and inspiration are key to sustaining momentum and driving progress. The New Vision for Agriculture initiative, which involved over 650 organizations, 1,500 leaders, and catalyzed action in 21 countries, including more than 90 value-chain projects, was an example.

  1. Be accountable

The initiative’s direction is determined by shared goals and principles. Measurable frameworks track progress. As initiatives mature, coordination and governance structures may be created. The Every Woman Every Childmovement, for example, mobilized hundreds to its global strategy. It monitored progress through a unified accountability structure with oversight by a high-ranking steering group and coordination from a global secretariat.

  1. Revise and review

The stakeholder review the progress of their strategy regularly and adjust it accordingly. Flexibility, innovation, and a learning-centered approach allow for experimentation and evolution. The 2030 Water Resources Group has gone through many stages in the evolution of its organizational structure. External evaluations were ordered to review its progress and suggest ways to improve it.

Although the CLEAR Framework may seem well-structured, the reality is that systems change can be messy and ambiguous. Many stakeholders describe systems leadership as a journey that leads to moments of insight or discovery. We call these ‘Aha! Moments that help to clarify each step on the journey.

The systems leadership approach must be mainstreamed

Although many people are intuitively aware of the concept, systems leadership is still not widely accepted and practiced. It will take a larger and more coordinated effort in order to spread the word about its use, develop research, share information and build capacity. Although many philanthropists and consultancies are involved in these areas, they are not always well connected. To connect practitioners and experts, share knowledge and accelerate learning, new platforms are required.

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