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What are the Characteristics of Effective Systems Leaders?

By Kimberly Edmunds, Equal Measure & Mike Matsunaga, Harder+Company Community Research

Investments in the social sector have become increasingly complex, with many foundations shifting toward strategies focused on improving outcomes for entire populations and communities. These systemic change efforts require coordination among stakeholders across all levels of the practice and policy continuum – from direct service providers, to nonprofit intermediaries, funders, advocacy organizations, and policymakers. It is in this context that The James Irvine Foundation’s Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence investment serves as a systems change experiment, offering insights and critical lessons that can inform others undertaking similar work. In this first post of a three-part series based on our recent Issue Brief, we share themes from this project about what it takes to be an effective systems leader.

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Thinking Systemically

Systems thinking is about stepping back and seeing the whole picture as a living system of inter-woven causality. Only from this vantage point can leaders detect patterns and relationships to leverage or disrupt as a means to realizing positive systemic change. Related to adaptive leadership, this skill rests on the notion that to be influential, leaders must have nuanced awareness of what is happening in the system – allowing them to learn, innovate, and test solutions.

Having an open mindset

Systems change work is characteristically innovative, risky, and developmental. Systems leaders, therefore, must embrace learning, ambiguity, uncertainty, and experimentation. Those who lead systems change efforts demonstrate audacity to disrupt the status quo for the sake of making programs and services more effective and true to their purpose – setting aside original strategies when unexpected paths and opportunities emerge.

Pressing for an unwavering attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Systems leaders apply a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to their work. This means that systems leaders must be adept at creating constructive discomfort and tension around inequity to galvanize people to act.Green twitter logo for EqM website_110617 They have a deep passion for and commitment to social justice, continuously bringing to the fore inequities embedded in the systems that they seek to change.

Building relationships and trust

Relationships and trust are the foundation for growth and change. Systems leaders who are in it for the long haul have patience for developing trust, and the time it takes to see progress toward shared goals. Empathy is critical for building relationships and trust – involving sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.

Practicing effective communication

Systems leaders hear points of view that may be different from their own, and are able to craft resonant narratives. They are skilled at showing where common interests lie, and can facilitate conversations that explore points of view distinct from their own. Speaking the languages of multiple sectors can do much to create the levels of trust needed to work together.

Focusing on results

Organizing collaborative activities around results is one way to ensure that the various moving parts of a collective coalesce toward common aspirations rather than disjointed programmatic or sector goals. This helps to break down organizational silos. At the outset, and in collaboration with partners and stakeholders, leaders should agree on what success looks like, and on milestones that will signify “early wins.”

Co-creating support structures

Systems change requires partners to work together in new ways. Co-creating joint processes can enable deeper idea exchange among representatives of all organizations and communities touched by the change process – including those directly affected by the initiative. Data-sharing agreements, group-decision-making, codifying partners’ commitments, and nimble governance structures are among other aspects of effective support infrastructure.

Empowering the collective, rather than the individual

Inspirational leadership has value, but it lacks capacity to solve enduring systemic issues. Effective systems leaders recognize that there are actors at multiple levels that need to lead change in their respective contexts. When leadership and power are distributed, single leaders’ roles diminish, and capacity increases. Sharing power and abandoning “I for we” is a necessary stance to practice systems leadership.

Creating opportunities for individuals to see the benefits of their participation

Systems leaders should help partners understand and articulate the benefits of participation, such as stretching their resources further to accomplish more. However, systems change takes time, and therefore systems leaders must help partners see interim progress that is directly beneficial to them. Systems leaders should continuously refresh the individual partner value proposition to keep stakeholders involved. Doing so can go a long way to sustaining the change effort’s initial momentum.


Systems leadership is among the foremost challenges and opportunities of the Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence initiative. In our next post, we will share how the above characteristics of systems leadership can be cultivated along a leadership development journey via individual and collective development strategies.

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