System Leadership and Community Development

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

From "The Dawn of System Leadership" (SSIR, Winter 2015)
Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2015)

An article titled “The Dawn of System Leadership” was recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in community development. While the notion of system leadership is not new—it is getting at similar ideas that others have called collaborative, integrative, boundary-spanning, adaptive or catalytic leadership—I believe the emphasis on “systems” thinking, change, and leadership is very helpful, and their short article does a great job of distilling down a lot of learning into a few key points that I’d like to summarize here.

The authors speak in terms of a “search for a new type of leadership” that seeks to “catalyze and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of the problems we face.” System leaders work at the system-level, which is why this term might be better than “collaborative” leadership, because collaboration can and does occur on more micro-scales, below the system-level. Senge and his colleagues find that true system leaders develop three “core capabilities…in order to foster collective leadership.” These leaders can “see the larger system” and help others set it. They foster “reflection and more generative conversations” among system stakeholders. And they shift “collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.” In other words, they help stakeholders think strategically and work toward system governance as opposed to staying in problem-solving mode.

The article also talks about how people “grow as system leaders” and discusses helpful tools (like system mapping). The authors also offer practice advice for those seeking system-level change and developing themselves as would-be “system leaders.” Again, it is a very well-written article that I highly recommend.

I couldn’t help but think of community development efforts when I read this article. Communities are complex systems and ultimately, community development is about achieving systemic change. The community capitals framework is a great tool for thinking about community as a complex system, and those engaged in community development would do well to use that tool as a guide for systems-thinking and system leadership in those efforts.

I was also thinking about food systems when I read this article. Community food councils are a great example of efforts to engage the whole system and they require a good deal of system leadership to organize and make effective. Well-running food councils are doing just what Senge and his colleagues suggest system leaders facilitate: they help stakeholder think in terms of the whole food system; they provide a container for reflection and “generative conversations;” and they strive to achieve some semblance of system-level governance, being proactive in creating more sustainable local and regional food systems.

Do you know people in your community that are effective system leaders? What do they do that is effective? What practices do you see in terms of community development that lead to system-level learning and change?

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