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The research report

In 2013, the Staff College, formally known as the Virtual Staff College (VSC), commissioned The Colebrooke Centre in collaboration with the Cass Business School, to carry out the first major UK study of systems leadership for public services. Given the degree of volatility and uncertainty currently dominating decisions public service leaders are having to make, the research is intended to elucidate for leaders how a systems approach to leadership may help them navigate increasingly complex systems.

The output is a suite of papers from this research including a synthesis paper, a literature review, four international papers as well as a range of interviews and case studies with UK systems leaders.

At it’s heart, what emerged from this empirical study was the notion that at the core of systems leadership in practice are shared values and intentions to improve outcomes for service users. This core is surrounded by a complex of interrelated dimensions. Although they overlap, these dimensions can be categorised as:

  1. Personal core values (ways of feeling)
  2. Observations, ‘hearing’ and perceptions (ways of perceiving)
  3. Cognition, analysis, synthesis (ways of thinking)
  4. Participatory style (ways of relating)
  5. Behaviours and actions (ways of doing)
  6. Personal qualities (an overarching way of being that forms the essence of both professional and personal style and approach).

Above all, and despite systems leadership aptitudes being put into practice by means of professional styles and behaviours, systems leadership was described as a mind set, or a way of thinking about and approaching the leadership role, rather than a set of technical skills or competencies.

A synthesis paper that draws together all of the strands of the research as well as a shorter executive summary is available to download below.

The literature

A companion piece for the Systems Leadership synthesis paper, this work reviews the published literature on systems leadership, seeking particularly to ascertain whether there is a clear agreement of how to define the subject of systems leadership and whether there is any consensus about the desirable characteristics for it to be effective. The paper seeks a specific emphasis in relation to children’s services and, more generally, into wider public services. The search criteria for the review have been influenced (rather than directed) by this focus, and the researchers have explored what learning can be drawn from the broad themes of systems leadership across all sectors.


Literature review

The views of systems leaders

This is one of a suite of papers from The Colebrooke Centre and Cass Business School’s research on systems leadership for the Staff College, formally known as the Virtual Staff College (VSC). It draws on 29 interviews with strategic leaders operating in public service systems that include or connect with children’s services. The objectives were to explore what systems leadership is and why it is important, what it involves in practice, the enabling and inhibiting conditions, how systems leadership links with improved outcomes, and how capacity for systems leadership can be developed.

UK Leadership scenarios

Part of a suite of papers from The Colebrooke Centre and Cass Business School’s research on systems leadership for the Staff College, formally known as the Virtual Staff College (VSC). This paper is intended to be read alongside other papers, particularly the Synthesis Paper.

In this paper, we describe three case studies of systems leadership – ‘leadership scenarios’ – which involved initiatives in multi-agency settings characterised by whole systems working. The scenarios were selected in collaboration with the project’s Research Advisory Group and Co-Production Group to illustrate systems leadership in different settings and contexts. They involved documentary review and three to five qualitative interviews by telephone with the key people involved particularly in the earlier stages of each initiative. These interviews were conducted very specifically through a lens focused on systems leadership, rather than the more typical focus of organisational or ‘good practice’ case studies. The researchers then used the interviews to explore the relevance of aspects of systems leadership that had emerged from the literature review and interviews with systems leaders and to drill down into how systems leadership thinking and behaviours actually played out on the ground. The scenarios thus illuminate systems leadership – the potential, power and challenges it involves, and its relationship with context.

The three scenarios are:

  • Barnet’s Troubled Families work
  • The North West London Integrated Care Pilot
  • Bradford’s Total Place project

International Perspectives

Four short papers were commissioned to provide brief overviews of each jurisdiction, focusing on children’s’ services. The four countries selected were USA, Canada, Australia and Denmark. The work was intended to support and expand the frame of reference for the UK-based research activities associated with this project, and whilst these countries were chosen on the basis of some degree of similarity with, as well as difference from, UK children’s services, they were not intended to give a comprehensive overview of global perspectives. Authors were asked to conduct a brief review of relevant literature in order to identify whether ‘systems leadership’ was a recognised and/or meaningful construct in their context, and to carry out ‘light touch’ case studies of local initiatives to illuminate key elements of effective systems leadership.

Each paper was prepared independently and each has its own emphasis and focus.

Leadership Centre NHS Leadership Academy Public Health England The Staff College