Systems Followership™

horses (2)Countless articles, blogs, and even t-shirts exhort people to ‘be a leader, not a follower’. Meaning, I suppose: choose your own path, don’t just fall in with the crowd, have some independence of thought, be prepared to stand out for your beliefs. All very laudable. But also all largely based on an outdated notion of leader as heroic individual, single-minded and certain.

Systems leadership is almost the antithesis of that model of heroic leadership. It is about leading when you don’t know what to do, when it isn’t clear what the right thing to do is, or even if there is one right answer. There might be many possibilities and they probably conflict with each other. Above all, systems leadership is a team game – it’s leadership…

…across organisational and geopolitical boundaries, beyond individual professional disciplines, within diverse organisational and stakeholder cultures, often without direct managerial control…. in order to effect change

Not something you can do on your own then. In thinking about systems leadership, I’ve found it helpful to differentiate between leadership (as a product of relationships between people in a system) and leaders (people who influence this process). In this sense, systems leadership does not mean getting a wider range of followers to comply with the titular leader’s commands; instead, leadership is a product of the interactions between  people within a system.

A complexity view suggests a form of “distributed” leadership that is not situated in an individual leader but instead in an interactive dynamic, within which any particular person might participate as leader or a follower at different times and for different purposes. Leadership is not confined to a formal managerial role, but emerges in the systemic interactions between individual connected agents . Individuals act as leaders in this dynamic when they mobilize people to seize new opportunities and tackle tough problems. As the situation changes, different people may act as leaders by leveraging their differing skills and experience.

Systems leadership can therefore be understood as
…a way of leading change in complex systems, which involves shifts in mind-set, behaviour and leadership practice

If we can define systems leadership in this way, we ought also to be able to include within that definition the concept of “systems followership” since individual actors in a system must be prepared to be leaders at some points, followers at another. Donella Meadows wrote about ‘dancing with systems’ and the metaphor encapsulates the way that leadership is shared and distributed in complex systems, with followership being a vital role. What, after all, would Fred Astaire be without Ginger Rogers? A lonely, possibly heroic, tap-dancer.

The conundrum, I’d suggest, is that whilst Fred needed Ginger, and vice versa, and both had essential roles in creating a beautiful dance, neither could easily take on the other’s role in their partnership. Does that mean Fred was born to lead, and Ginger to follow? No, I don’t think so. Ginger could happily take on a lead role in a different collaboration – in fact she did, in the 1965 Broadway production of “Hello,Dolly!” – and Fred could and did play second string to others.

It’s not easy though, if you are a leader who likes to lead in the traditional way – from the front, actively, setting the pace and the direction of the dance – to know when and how to  follow, not lead.

For one thing, good followership is seldom taught, and it can seem like a largely passive leadership role. Kellerman suggested a model that defines different modes of followership and notes that, at best, the role offers criticality and challenge, requires moral courage and the ability to ask questions in a way that helps the person taking up a more overt leadership position to clarify their thinking.

Knowing when to be a follower, and when to lead the dance is vital, in systems leadership work. There are many complex issues demanding our attention at present. Covid-19 is one; systemic racism another and the rights of trans people a third. That’s just from today’s twitter feed – tomorrow there will be more.

If you are someone who enjoys adopting a traditional leadership approach – calling to action, galvanising support, setting direction, defining the vision – it can be hard to recognise when it is your role to be quiet: to listen, to support, to be a good follower.

Doing is important. If we don’t take action, nothing changes. But there is at present a palpable rush to action from many people born from a belief best summed up as “We must do something! Here’s a thing – let’s do this!” when in reality, systems complexity demands sometimes that we take time to listen, to educate ourselves, to have conversations, to get behind the people who need support and then to follow their lead, in the ‘clumsy dance’ of systems leadership.



A Rainbow Day

“Today,” said Mum, “is a rainbow day.”

Maisie and Sophie looked out of the bedroom window. Then they looked at each other. Then they looked at Mum.

“It’s raining,” said Sophie.

“It’s windy,” said Maisie.

“We can’t go to the park,” they both said, at the same time.

Maisie and Sophie were twins, and often said things at the same time. Sometimes they thought things at the same time too, like when they both decided it would be fun to jump up and down on their beds and pretend they were on trampolines. They had both heard a loud ‘crack!’ at the same time too, as the bed legs buckled and crashed to the floor.

Daddy had fixed their beds and said,

“No more jumping on the bed,” very firmly.

Daddy was good at fixing things and was never cross for very long.

Mum said they weren’t being bad, they just had a lot of energy, and so they walked almost every day to the park at the end of the street, to play on the swings and the slide and the roundabout, and let off steam, and it was almost as good as jumping on the bed.

Today was not a good day for going to the park.

“It’s a rainbow day,” Mum said again. “And that means everything has to be rainbows, all day. Who knows what a rainbow is?”

Sophie shouted, “It’s red! And yellow!”

“Yes,” said Mum. “What other colours Maisie?”

“Purple,” said Maisie. Purple was her favourite colour, and the colour of her favourite jeans.

“That’s right. And blue and green and indigo in between,” agreed Mum.

“What’s indigo?” asked Sophie.

“Darkest blue,” said Mum. She rummaged through the toy box and found a packet of crayons. She took out the crayons one at a time and laid them on the floor.

“Red first. Then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, which is kind of purple. Where’s the purple crayon?”

Sophie handed it to Mum. The end was a bit wet where she had been chewing it and there were little flecks of purple round her mouth.


“So rainbow clothes today,” said Mum. She opened the wardrobe and the drawers and took out rainbow tops and pinafore dresses with rainbow pockets.

Sophie needed help with her buckles and Maisie got her head a bit stuck in the t-shirt but eventually the twins were dressed and they went downstairs for breakfast.

“Rainbow breakfast now” said Mum.

She laid out on their blue plates:

  • 1 bowl of raspberries
  • 8 segments of tangerine
  • 7 slices of banana
  • 6 green grapes
  • 6 purple grapes

eating rainbow breakfast

She poured them both a glass of blackcurrant juice and added water so it swirled and went purple.

They ate the fruit with chocolate croissants, then Maisie and Sophie helped to carry their plates and glasses to the kitchen sink after breakfast. Outside the rain was falling and the sky was cloudy.

Mum said “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

Maisie and Sophie looked at the garden in the rain. Otis, their big orange cat, was sheltering under the rose bush. There were no dogs in the garden at all.

In the living room Mum put the lights on and went to fetch the crayons. Maisie and Sophie sat down at their play table and Mum gave them a piece of paper each, to draw a rainbow.

This is what they drew:



After drawing, Maisie got out the Lego and made a tower. She stuck the bricks together, red, then yellow, then green, then blue. There wasn’t a purple brick so she put a brown brick on the top, and a cow on top of that.

Sophie got out the xylophone. The bars were rainbow colours and she hit them one after the other, singing at the top of her voice.

Mum came in and switched on the computer.

“We’re going to watch Rainbow now,” she said.

Maisie and Sophie enjoyed the programme. There was a man called Geoffrey, who was friends with a large bear, and a hippopotamus, and a pink puppet with a very silly voice. They liked the bear best.


After they had watched three programmes and done some more playing it was time for a nap.

“Perhaps the sun will be shining when you wake up,” said Mum.

But it wasn’t.

For lunch, Mum made a big rainbow salad, with:

  • Tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Tuna fish
  • Hardboiled egg
  • Purply-black olives

Pudding was plum jam swirled in creamy yoghurt with blueberries on top.

salad nicoise

On fine days they went to the park after lunch but it was still raining very hard and Mum said it would be too wet.

She got out the baking things:

  • The food mixer
  • 7 cake tins
  • 7 bowls
  • 3 wooden spoons
  • Flour
  • Eggs
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • 3 Tubes of food colouring

Sophie picked up the food colouring tubes one by one.

“Red,” she said. “Yellow, Blue.” She looked around for the other colours. Maisie looked too.

Mum said,

“We can make all the colours with these”.

Mum mixed the sugar and the butter together, added the flour and then the eggs. She turned the mixer off and divided the cake mix into the seven small bowls. While Sophie and Maisie were taking turns to lick the mixing bowl, Mum put food colouring in each of the small bowls.

In the first bowl she put a big squeeze of red colouring.

In the second bowl, she put a squeeze of red and a squeeze of yellow.

In the third bowl she put a big squeeze of yellow.

In the fourth bowl, she put a squeeze of yellow and a squeeze of blue.

In the fifth bowl she put a big squeeze of blue.

In the sixth bowl she put a squeeze of blue and a squeeze of red.

In the seventh bowl she put a squeeze of blue, a squeeze of red and then another squeeze of blue.

Sophie and Maisie helped to mix the colours into the cake mix. Mum buttered the cake tins. Then one by one they poured the mixture into the tins.

Mum put the cake tins in the oven and they all went in to the living room for story time. Mum read “Where is the Green Parrot?” and “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. Sophie looked out for red and orange and yellow in the books, Maisie looked out for green and blue and purple and Mum pointed to indigo when it was in one of the pictures.


Just when they finished the caterpillar book for the fourth time, Daddy came home.

“Something smells good,” he said.

Mum jumped up and ran through to the kitchen.

“What kind of day have you had?” Dad asked Maisie and Sophie.

“A rainbow day!” they both shouted.

“Shall we go to the park now?” Dad asked.

Maisie and Sophie ran to the window and looked out. The rain had stopped. Sunlight was making the drops of water on the grass shine and sparkle. They pulled their wellies on, and Daddy helped them put on their raincoats: yellow for Maisie, red for Sophie and woolly hats for both of them.

Then they walked down the road to the park, jumping in puddles all the way there.

Daddy wiped the swings with his sleeve so they weren’t too wet to sit on and Sophie and Maisie swooped up and down with their legs sticking straight out and their heads tilted back.

“I’m flying!” said Maisie.

“Up to the sky!” shrieked Sophie.

On the way home they jumped in all the puddles again, and that was allowed because they were wearing their wellies.

Just when they got to their own front door again, Daddy said,

“Look! Up there,” and he pointed his finger to above the rooftop, where the sky was dark grey. In the sky, clear as anything, a rainbow shone: red and orange, yellow and green, darkest indigo and blue and then purple right at the end.

“Some people say, if you get to the very end of the rainbow you’ll find a pot of gold,” said Daddy.

“What’s gold?” asked Maisie.

When they had hung up their raincoats and put their wellies to dry in the porch, Maisie and Sophie ran to hug Mum in the kitchen. She was just putting the icing on the cake.

“Do you two want to put the sprinkles on?” she asked. She gave them both an eggcup with rainbow coloured sprinkles and they shook them over the icing.

Then they washed their hands and had tea, which was ratatouille and cheese and then Mum brought out the cake. All the different layers had baked into a colour of the rainbow; they were joined together with buttercream and it was the most beautiful cake Maisie and Sophie had ever seen.

It tasted very good too, every last rainbow crumb.

rainbow cake



So Long As There Are Days

I wrote this a few months ago, when life looked a bit bleak and I was reminding myself that better times would come. Now, I am hoping that there will be days like this again.

So long as there are days

when the morning sun pulls strips of gauze

from round the cairns that top Rise Hill

and lazy bees nose the honeysuckle.

When warming breezes stir the long grass

to waken crickets sawing invisibly

and butterflies waltz their partners round the buddleia.


Down the dale caravans sway

in congas of cream and chrome

while bikes take corners horizontal.


So long as there are days

when swifts skim the river Clough like pebbles

and brown trout hide in peat-dark pools;

where we lay towels on limestone pillows

and drift our fingers stained

purple from brambling, while time slows

and the sheep call across sleepy fields.


Down the dale balloons meander,

making for the horizon shining

like tinfoil where sea melds sky.


So long as there are days

when fading sun finds hidden jewels in stone

and smoke from wood fires spirals nightwards.

When watercolour skies of peach and turquoise

silhouette last games of French cricket

and daisy-chains lie limp, abandoned

in fields grown damp with evening dew.


Down the dale the tractors lumber

and cars crocodile homeward

warm with sun and sleeping children.

(December 2019)

Football and Systems Leadership – a Blog of Two Halves

Part 1.

One week in and I’m not yet excited about the World Cup 2018.

The games are often shown when I’m working or travelling, and the days have been warm lately – too nice to sit indoors watching evening matches. No doubt I will change my views if England advance to the quarter-finals and in any event, the constant references to football in the newspapers, on twitter, on TV and, sadly, over the breakfast table, have stirred me enough to wonder idly what football and systems leadership have in common. Next time I plan to write about what they don’t share -but for now, here are my thoughts – I’d welcome yours.

  1. Football is a team game

Fairly obviously, you can’t play football on your own. Likewise you can’t ‘do’ systems leadership as an individual – it’s all about connections between the players, and creating a sense of team with a shared purpose. And as in all team games, the goal scorers can only do what they do with the support of their team-mates – almost all goals are built up from a series of connected moves and passes and multiple assists so the glory has to be shared. Even if you’re Ronaldo.

  1. Football is a contact sport.

It’s a similar point to (1) but with the added dimension that in football, as in systems leadership, you have to get involved. You can’t have real influence on the game by commentating from the sidelines. You have to take risks, go in for the tackles, work really hard, play your heart out, and know that you risk losing, or getting a skint knee. There are no prizes for the cleanest shorts, in systems leadership or in football.

  1. Rules might seem fixed but they’re mutable.

The laws of football have changed significantly over the years. Subs were introduced in the late 1950’s and then you were only allowed one. Yellow and red cards came into play in the late 60s and what you could be carded for has changed too. The back-pass rule didn’t come into force until 1992. So the rules have to adapt and often they lag behind what is actually needed on the field of play – that means players stretch the rules, try new tactics, see what they can get away with. Likewise, the rules that govern how we deliver health and social care have not always kept pace with the way leaders want and need to work in systems – we can’t always wait for the rules to change before trying new ways of working. As the great Bill Shankly once said ‘The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they don’t know the game’. Good systems leaders need to know both.

  1. The harder you work at it, the better you get.

David Beckham famously practised and practised, and then practised a bit more to perfect his free kicks. In his NY Times bestseller, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing for a total of 10,000 hours. Systems leadership – collaborative, distributed leadership based on letting go of control, facilitative leadership inviting multiple diverse perspectives, networking, building relationships, developing trust – takes practice to perfect the skills associated with it. 10,000 hours is 90 minutes (!) a day over 20 years – no surprise perhaps, that in systems which show good evidence of connected, collaborative leadership, there are often relationships which have been built up over many years. More recent studies have debunked some of Gladwell’s assertions, but all stress the importance of practice. We are what we repeatedly do, as Aristotle said. So if we keep practising the skills of systems leadership that might be key to becoming excellent leaders in systems.

  1. People can hold several different identities at one time.

One of the challenges we often debate in facilitating systems leadership work is the suggestion that people find it difficult to relinquish their identity – as a professional, as a team member in an organisation, as a manager or board member or governor. But football shows us that people are quite capable of holding multiple identities without feeling that they are compromising allegiances or being disloyal. My father, a fervent (and vocal) Leeds United fan, was a supporter of Bradford Park Avenue in his youth – their ground was half a mile down the road and he went with his Dad from the age of 6. He supports England in the World Cup, but France as well because he lived and worked in France for many years; Scotland for similar reasons, and York City because that’s now his local team. People often introduce themselves in meetings by their organisation role – saying ‘Hi, I’m Reeta and I work in the health segment of this system’ might be the equivalent of introducing yourself as an England supporter rather than a Leeds fan. So perhaps, in order to progress systems leadership work, leaders need to understand and shape their identity in a system context – and that doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of their local team loyalty. Although I’m a Scot, I’d be proud to be called a Scouser. (Bill Shankly, of course).

  1. It helps to have a good coach.

This one almost goes without saying. There is good evidence to show that coaching is what helps people – in sport, in leadership, in life – to go from fine to fabulous. Time and financial investment in coaching is rarely wasted and can keep a systems team focused, help maintain momentum and provide space for systems leaders to reflect on what is going on here, and how can we do this better? A coach from outside the system, an enabler, a facilitator – these are all absolutely vital roles in systems leadership as in football. A good coach stretches us, challenges us, keeps us to the work when all we really want to do is sit down with a brew and a hobnob, and a good coach helps with the mental game as much as the physical game. A lot of football success is in the mind. (Shankly, again)

  1. Diversity is essential.

Fairly obviously, you need strikers, midfielders, defenders…to be excellent in football players need to know what they’re good at, and perfect that. They need to recognise that there are different skills, and they’re equally important, and they need to understand each other’s game, in order to get the best out of each player. In systems leadership likewise, it’s important to seek out and work with difference. Leaders need to have a sense of how the world looks from the perspective of others in order to work effectively with them. Really good midfielders know how to work well with strikers and that might be helped by becoming what I heard one fire officer in Greater Manchester describe as ‘omnicompetent’ – equally comfortable in every position. I’m personally not convinced by omnicompetence residing in an individual player or leader – in my experience, it is the system that needs multiple competencies, not necessarily each person within it, and the synergies involved in the coming together of different abilities and strengths is what makes transformation – or winning the World Cup – possible. A team comprised of the world’s best goalies isn’t a fantastic football team.
While this blog is tongue-in-cheek, systems leadership is serious. We need to be good at systems leadership if we are to maintain a sustainable health and social care system that’s fit for the future. Almost as serious as football: Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.

It takes a system to change a system


At the end of another day working with healthcare leaders intent on leading more effectively to change their care system, one of the participants came up to me.

“I wanted to ask you,” she started, and then stopped.

pens 2

I glanced up from packing away my pens. She went on,

“The thing is…aren’t we just setting people up to fail?”

“Mmm…in what way?”

“Well, we come to a class like this and it’s great…we explore systems thinking, and the challenges of leading in systems, and we think about the behaviours of good system leaders – collaborating, listening to each other, valuing difference, adapting to VUCA conditions, asking questions – and then we go back with all that energy into our organisations and often nobody wants to know…people talk over each other, demand that we have answers, that we compete, that we look after the interest of our organisations. The system doesn’t want us to lead differently. So we fail -and that’s so demoralising.”

We talked a bit more about the dilemmas of system leadership: the fact that it’s not system leadership OR command and control but, as Ibarra points out ‘command and collaborate’.

The demands of working life in complex adaptive systems represent a constant tension for system leaders between, on the one hand, thinking long-term and about legacy, and on the other, dealing with immediate and short-term crises; between survival now and sustainability for the future; between order & control, and ‘being comfortable with the mess’.


A colleague and I captured some of these dilemmas in a way that has enabled systems leaders to have open, honest conversations about the tensions, the risk and the benefits of working in a more systems-focused way. And, in the words of the great Arthur Ashe, leaders can only “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

Start somewhere – and watch what happens. The participant went away with some thoughts about things she could do: small changes, disruptions that might perturb her system long enough to allow shifts in behaviours and mindsets.

Next meeting, we’ll take off our lanyards and introduce ourselves by who we are in the system, not by organisation,” she decided.

But in a way she was right. If we work only with individual leaders and develop their understanding of system thinking and system leadership in isolation, there is a risk of a fundamental attribution error, in that we may ascribe the way people behave in systems to their own individual choices, their internal characteristics as leaders.

We encourage leaders to manage their competitive behaviour, listen more, let go of control, develop better understanding of their system. We know that individual behaviours create team and organisational cultures and thus if we want better systems we need to address behaviours at individual level.

This approach might suggest that the way leaders behave in systems is a personal choice and that we need to encourage leaders to make different choices about their behaviours in order to effect system change.


But what people do doesn’t always, or only, reflect who they are – we also have to consider the situations in which they lead, and the immense pressure leaders are under.

How would it be if we imagine the Finance Director is not being commanding and directive because he’s a control freak but because of external forces: he knows he has some unpalatable choices to make and doesn’t want to put the burden of those choices onto others; if we consider the Chief Executive  isn’t fiercely focused on her organisation because she is a narcissist who doesn’t care about the rest of the system but because she has a staffing crisis, today, which has to be resolved, and a commitment to her Board to keep the organisation afloat.

Individual leaders on their own can only do so much – and they are not “the problem”.

So how can we work with the system, in a connected way, to develop the collective leadership capability and understanding we need in whole health and social care systems and do it sustainably?

One possibility is to get the whole system – or as much of it as can be spared – into the room at one time. Working together, exploring in real time, in a safe space, how it is to lead collaboratively, to be system sighted, can be very impactful.

Leaders who, because they work in separate functional silos, have limited understanding of the worlds and the perspectives of colleagues in other teams, departments, organisations, can develop powerful insights into different realities and, through that, start to discover how to work more collaboratively, to value diversity and different perspectives, to listen to a wider range of voices. They take that learning as a system back into the ‘real’ world.

Of course, we never get the ‘whole’ system in the room. Even when the shared purpose is clearly defined, in a system as complex as healthcare the sheer numbers of people connected to a purpose makes that prohibitive.

So, alternatively, we can work with leaders over a period of time, using some of the principles of spaced learning, a model which is amassing good evidence of effectiveness in different settings. In this process, we work with leaders in short ‘bursts’ of theory-based activity, interspersed with time to apply the learning, observe, reflect and bring findings back to the next session.

The repetition of key messages, combined with the opportunity to put theory into practice, can have real impact, particularly with leaders who have an urge to ‘just get on and do something’.

And of course we can do both – work with a group of leaders from one system, connected around a shared purpose, over a period of time, to explore, discover, put into practice, learn together and develop collective strategies for the whole system.

Where we are able to do this, we observe that leaders often take their learning out into their system and build their own collaborative leadership teams, bringing to life the maxim that systems leadership must be at all levels in the system, to precipitate transformational change. 2000px-ApollonianGasket-15_32_32_33.svg_

System leadership is much too important to be left only to the top leaders.

As facilitators of systems leadership we also need to think about our own position as connectors within and across systems. Whether as individual or organisational providers we can work with many different local, regional and national systems.

We can work with leaders from different parts of the whole health and social care system. We can work with individuals, learning sets, Boards, cohorts and programmes, and on themes ranging from an overt focus on systems change and system leadership, through specific topics relevant in one way or another to leading in systems – change, conflict, decision-making, power, innovation, improvement and culture.

So how would it be if, instead of trying to corral, order and control a chaotic, complicated and volatile mix of system leadership developers  into one version of the truth about systems, we instead sought to provide a space in which to discuss and critically reflect on our work?

There are many fascinating and insightful people doing interesting work on systems, system leadership and applying the principles to health and social care – wouldn’t it be interesting if we could find ways to share, have conversations, create opportunities to collaborate, and learn from each other, in real space and time, as well as in the virtual spaces many of us use? I would be up for a systems leadership big collaborative conversation – anyone else?

The thief of time



I’ve found it hard 2dba2fa9d80ae2e51003cc067e9a884e--writing-quotes-writing-adviceto find time to write another blog on systems leadership although I have been inspired by reading and by talking to many systems leaders and systems thinkers recently. My thoughts at the moment are focused around challenging paradigms: systems thinking requires a mindset shift and I was struck by an article on non-Euclidean mathematics which suggested that things we think of as ‘givens’ and just ‘how the world is’ may actually be interpretations and perspectives, rather than absolute truths.

A blog on this to follow but in the meantime I wrote something about how hard it can be to get down to writing…

Five Ways to Write 

If you want to write a blog –

Or a story, or a poem…the advice is much the same for all kinds of creative output –

You should first put on a load of washing.

Sort the laundry into piles: the whites, the dark colours, the new jeans that will run.

Take extra care to separate out the mohair sweaters, and the pale pink silk dress

You wore to your mother’s birthday dinner.

She said it would show up the stains and she was right.

Choose the correct programme – (hint: it is almost always number 5).

Measure out the right amount of blue liquid or powder or plastic capsules

(please note that these latter are not to be eaten, however like sweeties they appear)

And close the door firmly, but not so hard that you damage the lock.

Push the button. Wait.

When the water rushes in you may go back to your writing desk.

Even writers need clean clothes.


If you have longer you can try writing a blog

By going for a walk.

Find your boots – they are not by the back door where you left them

But have unaccountably walked into the hallway and hidden in the broom cupboard.

Spend a few moments locating your phone;

First you must remember where you put the clever Tile you were given at Christmas.
Pressing it will cause your phone to ring, provided it has not again run out of battery.

After ten minutes give up on the Tile and the phone –

Instead, pull on your oldest fleece,

The one garlanded with cat hairs, and a red woolly hat with ear flaps.

Take a plastic bag in case you find late brambles and step out into the fresh air.

When you come back your face will be scarlet

And you will feel virtuous and ready to write, or alternatively to have a cup of tea

And a chocolate HobNob. Only one, mind.


In the age of social media some people, young people mostly,

Write by reading Tweets,

Instagram posts, or Facebook messages.

Whichever your chosen medium, spend an hour or so

Aimlessly scrolling through the outpourings of people

You would avoid talking to in the pub

And wouldn’t recognise if you sat next to them

On the tube.

Examine the party pictures of friends of friends

For signs that they are having a better life than you.

Laugh at videos of dogs falling down stairs,

Scottish women showering their children with profanities

And politicians spouting insanities, inanities and lies.

Feel depressed momentarily.

Then write a response to a particularly stupid comment

On an article about women having it all

And delete, quickly.

At least you have written something.


A fourth way – and I have not attempted this myself –

Is to write for fifteen minutes first thing in the morning,

That is, before anything else – before you have fed the cat,

Emptied the dishwasher, put on the kettle,

Turned on the radio and been deafened

By loud music, because one of the kids left it tuned to Kiss FM,

Switched to Radio 4 and shouted at John Humphreys twice,

Absent-mindedly eaten a left-over croissant instead of the muesli

You made up last night and stored in the fridge,

Found the oldest one’s gym kit and the youngest one’s reading book,

Answered the phone to someone asking if you were mis-sold PPI,

Sworn again at the radio and wondered if you can be bothered getting dressed

If you’re only driving to school

And not actually getting out of the car –

Before all this, write down your thoughts in a stream of sleepy consciousness.

Remember to keep a pen and a pad of paper next to the bed and

Do not tip last night’s cocoa over it, whatever you do.


If all else fails

Do as the great Arthur Ashe counselled:

Start somewhere.

He did not write many blogs.







Pyramids, Asylums and Walnuts: the legacies of systems leadership

I’ve been thinking about legacy recently. Partly because I’m getting older. While retirement is still an elusive prospect, I am finding mid-life is a space to grapple with some fairly weighty existential questions: what am I here for? What’s the meaning of it all? Where did I leave my keys/glasses/phone? And what did I come upstairs for?

Also because I attended a seminar led by Roman K

The notion of work having meaning and purpose is important to most people, and I’ve been reflecting on legacy and the sense in which leaders are temporary guardians of the services in which they work, charged with putting into place ideas and reaching for visions that they may not be around to see to fruition; moreover, visions and ideas that make sense for the system in the future and the long-term even if in the short-term they can’t be evidenced and don’t further immediate goals.

How can we plan for and build a future that is inherently unpredictable? What is it that enables system leaders to be far-sighted legacy leaders? I’ve found some answers in my own experiences of leading system change and of working with systems leaders.

In common with many of the people I’ve worked with over the last 30 years, wanting to make a difference is what brought me into the healthcare world, firstly into mental health at a time – the late-80’s – of massive health system change.

In one of my first major leadership roles I was asked to head up a new organisation, providing housing and care for people who had spent much of their lives in long-stay psychiatric institutions.

Some of the people I worked with had lived for so long in hospital that the prospect of moving out, albeit into a beautiful detached house in one of the leafier suburbs of London, was terrifying. It was traumatic for staff, as well as patients: whilst there appeared to be consensus about the need to close the old hospitals, and a genuine belief that people would be able to live happier, more fulfilled lives in the community, the hospital was known, safe, and had the comfort of the familiar – after all, it had been ‘home’ for upwards of thirty years for some of our new residents.

So it took courage to take the ‘leap into the unknown’ for everyone involved.

We took our time – there were many months of acclimatisation: visits to the new house, involvement in choosing housemates, picking out the décor, working out the bus routes to the post office, the local leisure centre, learning how to cook, and saying goodbye to friends and colleagues.

We held lots and lots of meetings, facilitated support groups, worked through the practicalities of funding and the details of staffing rotas, and at the same time we worked together to craft a shared vision of the future.

There was fear and there was also excitement. What did I learn? That it takes a long time, longer than you think. Systems leaders need patience. It was a long journey and there would be no benefit in rushing to the finish line if we didn’t take everyone with us.

Also, that we create the future as we go. As the old saying has it:

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I also learned that in change there is always loss. Those of us who were motivated and inspired by the vision of the future found it hard to understand why some people struggled to let go of the old – after all, the hospital was no longer fit for purpose, it was built in a time when our understanding of how to treat mental illness was very different, and we should not now be banishing people from communities to live, isolated and hidden, and become institutionalised.

Nevertheless, people’s lives were being changed around them and that had to be recognised. We held multi-faith services, established a photographic record of what was being left behind, encouraged people to share their stories – the bad and the good and the hugely funny – and found a way to acknowledge what was lost while we were moving forward.

Resistance was not simply a reaction to the physical or financial challenges of moving large numbers of people from hospitals into communities that often weren’t very happy about the influx. It was also a reflection of the need for mind-set change.

Systems change is mind-set change, as much as it is about physical buildings and services and how people work and are cared for in them.

My job now involves working with leaders in the health and social care system – facilitating their learning, providing opportunities to develop their thinking and understanding of what it means to lead; coaching, challenging and teaching.

At most I spend a few days with people, often less, and although I have taught hundreds, possibly thousands, of leaders over the past ten years, I generally have little data on whether it has actually made a difference to the system.

There is solid evidence that organisational and individual development enables people to be more effective as leaders, in general. That’s partly about building confidence, honing leadership skills, acquiring the tools to manage and lead, and developing resilience.

There is also good evidence that systematic learning is one of the critical elements in successful systems leadership – that it is not enough to simply put leaders in a room together and expect them to magically collaborate, but that space is needed for leaders to work together, be tested, experiment and try out new ways of working, learn together and take that learning, collectively, back into the system.

I was reminded this week of a story told to me by a CEO I worked with several years ago. “What’s the significance,” he asked, “of a walnut to systems leadership?” I ran through all the reasons I could think of: it looks like a brain, and systems leadership requires thinking; it is nourishing – we have to provide sustenance for people on their systems journeys; it’s a really tough nut to crack. After I’d exhausted my ideas he said,

“Yes, all those are true. But there’s another reason, and that is, walnut trees take a very long time to grow, and to produce fruit. It is probable that the walnuts you eat come from a tree that was planted by someone who would never see the fruit appear.”

Planting walnut seeds takes faith in the future, the vision to imagine what might happen, even if you’re not around to see it, and concern for the people coming after you, who will enjoy the fruits of the tree you planted.

Systems leadership, likewise, takes time and calls for patience and persistence. It generates loss, which has to be acknowledged and managed. It requires mind-set change, and it involves having a shared sense of purpose and doing things which leave a legacy of the kind of health and care system we want for future generations.

The Victorians who built the old asylums knew a thing or two about legacy; so did the visionaries Nye Bevan and William Beveridge and their colleagues who created the welfare state and the NHS. What is our legacy going to be? What kinds of ancestors will we be, for the next generation, and the ones after?


A story of hedgehogs and foxes

It is natural, when times are tough, to react by withdrawing and closing in. We (metaphorically, mostly) curl up into a ball, we close our eyes to block out the fearful unknown, stick our fingers in our ears and sing ‘la la la’, or we hide under the bed and wait for it all to go away. That worked when we were kids, and it works for hedgehogs. The trouble is, we’re not kids or hedgehogs and it’s not a viable strategy to deal with the sorts of complex, multi-faceted, intractable problems we face today in our communities.

The unprecedented challenges facing public sector leaders in the 21st century have given rise to a growing recognition that we need to build systems leadership capability. We know that agencies – and leaders – operating independently have neither the economic nor the human resources to respond to growing levels of expectation and demand; nor do they have sufficient information to solve complex multi-faceted problems unless they share knowledge and skills with others. It makes sense for organisations to work together to share resources and processes, develop economies of scale and scope and provide coherent system-wide leadership. And there are opportunities arising from this way of working, as well as challenges driving the need: devolution, for example, offers the potential for strengthening local government’s role in healthcare transformation – vital if we are to secure the radical changes we need to see in the way healthcare services are delivered.

More than ever, then, public sector leaders must be system leaders, moving away from silo-ed working into fluid and collaborative working arrangements which transcend organisational and professional boundaries, and rejecting heroic single-minded leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leadership.

So much is known and agreed upon. But it is hard, especially when the system looks and feels like a challenging place. There is security and safety in silos, as well as the chance to specialise. The organisational and professional boundaries which have to be transcended if we are to develop systems leadership serve an important purpose. They contain anxiety, and keep us connected to the familiar and the known. They allow us to focus, to block out the mess and get on with the work.

There is risk in venturing into the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity which characterises complex systems, and that’s why one of the most important attributes of effective systems leaders is courage. Good systems leadership is about boldly going – experimenting, exploring and moving away from the leadership certainties of having the answers to constantly asking questions. So it also calls for curiosity – just what is going on here? What’s on the other side of that wall? What happens if I poke my finger in…this?

Not hedgehogs then. More like foxes – bold, inquisitive, adaptable and fierce. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, wrote a famous essay on the hedgehog and the fox, based on the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus’s observation that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one important thing”.

Systems leaders have to know many things, like foxes, but none of them to the level of detail that specialist hedgehogs can attain. The world needs hedgehogs: the discipline and focus, the clarity around the ‘one important thing’ has led to great scientific discoveries, sublime works of art, beautiful music, and has deepened our understanding of the world. The hedgehog, according to Berlin, ‘never wavers, never doubts’. She sees the world through one idea and that is her strength. Jim Collins uses the analogy in his seminal book, ‘Good to Great’ to explore leadership and seems to suggest that all good leaders are hedgehogs, in part because they know how to ‘simplify the complex’.

But we need foxes too. It takes real courage to step over boundaries and into the unknown, especially at a time when the threats from ‘outside, over there’ seem ever greater: cyber-attacks, terrorist attacks, the fast pace of technological change. And foxes, far from trying to make the complex simple, understand that complex is complex…and are comfortable with nuance and many different ways of looking at things.

Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ also builds on Berlin’s work to explore different ways of thinking. Hedgehogs he says, “..account for particular events within a coherent framework, bristle with impatience toward those who don’t see things their way, and are confident in their forecasts.  They are also especially reluctant to admit error. They are opinionated and clear”. Confident in their predictions and often wrong, Kahneman points out.

“Foxes,” Kahneman says, “by contrast, are complex thinkers.  They recognize…that reality emerges from the interactions of many different agents and forces, including blind luck, often producing large and unpredictable outcomes.”

In the world of systems leadership, it is important to let go of certainty. Systems leaders must embrace the complex, the unknown, the ambiguous and the uncertain. That can be a difficult place to be, when the world thinks good leaders look like hedgehogs, and when foxes are reviled and attacked. But foxes and hedgehogs must find ways to work together, to value each other’s difference, if we are to deliver true systems transformation.




Synchronised Swimming Lessons: Developing Systems Leaders


How do we develop the systems leaders we need in health and social care?


The skills and attributes that make for effective systems leadership are fairly well documented: evidence and learning from programmes such as the Local Vision projects, the HSMC System Leadership pilots and The King’s Fund and AQuA’s Leading Large-Scale Change programme, generally accepts the importance of curiosity and asking questions; an ability to manage complexity and ambiguity; a sense of place; the ability to build relationships, to work with difference and manage conflict productively; a facilitative leadership approach which seeks to build the potential for leadership across the system rather than a traditional, top-down command-and-control style. So far, so uncontentious.

There is less agreement about the best ways to develop these behaviours, this knowledge and those skills, for and with systems leaders. Can anyone be a systems leader, with the right development and support? And what kind of development and support has the most impact on people who are keen to develop their capability for distributed leadership in systems, across organisational boundaries? One thing we do know is that there must be some kind of support – it isn’t enough to simply put leaders in a room together and expect them to somehow overcome poor trust, lack of understanding of each other’s worlds and decades of competitive behaviour, and magically collaborate. Particularly when incentives, targets and accounting systems fail to recognise or support more connected working.

A new report from the Institute of Healthcare Management on the emerging Sustainability and Transformation Plans “Swimming Together or Sinking Alone”  analyses the difficulties inherent in bringing together organisational leaders from across the health and social care system and expecting them to collaborate to take responsibility for the whole system. The analogy in the report’s title is apt to a point – leaders across the system have to recognise that individually and collectively they are required to take responsibility for system-level challenges; but it is not true that the risk of not doing this is the risk of sinking alone. No, it’s worse than that: the whole system will go down if systems leadership fails.


How then do systems leaders learn to swim? Not by reading a book…but perhaps by dipping toes in the water, watching how others do it, practising and being willing to get it wrong, to look clumsy and feeling out of their element for a while. And by going on courses or attending a programme, because there is something inspiring and motivating about learning together with others, which translates into the ‘real world’ of work. The report’s author notes the evidence that “If people learn together, they work together…. there are other enablers…but the big one is OD.”[1]

This is hard work. As Lord Kerslake, Chair of King’s College Hospital FT pointed out in a recent article “It is very hard to improve your swimming technique if you are struggling to keep your head above water” and it is easier if you’re doing it at the same time, with others who are struggling too, and with external support. A swimming coach if you like.

To stretch the analogy to breaking point though, we are really asking more of our systems leaders than to hold each other up in the water while they learn to swim. In fact what we might need is synchronised swimming – that is, everyone swimming/working together for the same goal, coordinating their actions, understanding the simple rules that keep them connected and seeing the goal as the synergy created by effectively swimming together. There will always be room for different strokes – complexity and multiplicity are inherent in effective systems leadership, so the front crawl is as important as the butterfly, and both equally good styles in the right context. Ultimately though, systems leadership is not a freestyle race but a collective water-dance in which discipline, focus and a belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts has to prevail.


[1] “Swimming Together or Sinking Alone: Health, Care & the Art of Systems Leadership”, Vize, R., 2016

Systems Leaders in a Post-truth World: Stories, Seeking out Difference and Spock.

Post-truth was the word of 2016, according to the OUP. You could be forgiven for interpreting that information with a degree of alarm, the implication being that in 2017 we are moving into a world where truth doesn’t matter, facts are debatable, the media can’t be trusted, and lies are fine as long as you can tell a good story. Possibly that’s the case, and if so it’s undoubtedly scary, but perhaps there is room for cautious optimism. After all, the behavioural science which underpins the notion of post-truth isn’t new:it’s long been recognised that we all have preferences, and tend to seek explanations (and people) that support or confirm our biases; we choose the information we pay attention to, through the conversations we have, the media we use, the books we read. ‘Facts’ are selective at best, truth is always partial and a smattering of scepticism  makes good sense. It was more than 30 years ago that Louis Philip Heren, a newspaper foreign correspondent, suggested “…when a politician tells me something in confidence I always ask myself ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?'”. So the concept that truth is relative was not coined in 2016, and it doesn’t by itself imply that facts don’t matter.

Nor should we assume in a post-truth world that people don’t care about reasoned argument and evidenced analysis. It has long been understood that people – voters, citizens, ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ – respond more to emotional arguments than to ‘cold facts’. In other words, leaders have to be able to tell compelling, appealing stories that address feelings – but the narrative must at some level be underpinned by the facts that satisfy rational analysis. If the story and the facts don’t fit, the narrative wins…at least in the short term. In the long run, if the facts then don’t bear out the story, there is likely to be a strong backlash. But again, this is not new knowledge. Leaders have to appeal to hearts as well as minds. Feelings are truths, but facts matter too.

What does appear to be changing is the volume of information available to people in an increasingly complex, ambiguous ‘post-truth’ world. There is so much out there, what should we believe? Who should we listen to? Is everyone lying and if so, how do we trust our own thoughts and feelings? When everything is changing so rapidly, how can we find stability and the ‘still, small voice of calm’? One response appears to be for people to seek out even more strongly what they perceive to be the plain, simple, unvarnished stories that ‘tell it like it is’ and allow no room for nuanced debate, uncertainty or doubt. People often revert to the familiar and the safe, they seek people who appear to have answers, rather than the leaders who ask difficult questions. Such a strategy is likely to result in ever-increasing polarisation, much greater ‘othering’ of those who think and behave differently, a retreat into our ‘bubbles’ which don’t allow challenge or alternative truths to penetrate. It’s an understandable reaction, but it’s a dangerous one.

So why the cautious optimism? Well, there are strategies that could enable us to make new sense in a post-truth world, if we’re brave enough to try them, and using them might lead us towards some new truths. And the strategies have much to offer systems leaders, who by definition are trying to develop new paradigms of leadership in complex, chaotic, ambiguous and volatile systems at a time when many people are seeking definitive answers and strong decisive leaders. For example, Jo Fidgen on BBC Radio 4’s “The New World” this week offered suggestions such as spending ten minutes listening to someone whose views you disagree with, without talking, interrupting or correcting. Just listening. Not assuming they’re wrong, or moronic. For systems leaders, seeking out difference is vital and that implies actively listening to people who disagree with you. And trying to understand what it is that you need to ‘get’ about them instead of assuming that ‘they just don’t get it’.

It is also essential for leaders -and politicians – to resist the temptation to have all the answers. At times of huge uncertainty, when structures and systems are changing all around us, it is natural for people to gravitate towards leaders who offer good stories which address our fears and hopes, and for leaders to want to look like they’re in charge and taking decisive action. It’s an illusion. Just like the Wizard of Oz, and systems leaders have to encourage their followers to pull back the curtain. “Truth” as Oscar Wilde pointed out, “is rarely pure and never simple”. Getting used to finding incomplete answers, living comfortably with the mess, and constantly asking questions are all essential attributes of complex systems leadership.

Systems leaders must be good at telling stories, undoubtedly, but they have to be equally good at telling the truth and sometimes that means saying ‘ I don’t know the answer. How can we work it out together?’ or, as the greatest Vulcan of them all once said “I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us“.

Live long and prosper in 2017!