January 2024

Collective Leadership for Healthy and Equitable Systems Change

We don’t need another hero

It’s become increasingly clear to us that traditional hero narratives, mindsets and programs for leadership development no longer serve us. We believe they tend to perpetuate a centralise and control approach to change. This approach to leadership is not up to the task of today’s polycrisis. 

Traditional leadership programs also tend to reinforce the idea that leadership is attached to a title, a position at the top of a hierarchy. At a macro level, there’s a connotation of leadership over the masses. 

By contrast, if we distil leadership to more of its essence – as being an act of influencing the behaviours of others – then we can recognise and cultivate more inclusive and democratised leadership. This more evolved approach to leadership is vital to meet our interconnected challenges (and opportunities). 

We believe we need leaders who can work collectively and imaginatively, across differences of perspective, to help cultivate our shared power and agency. We need skilled, networked leadership – irrespective of hierarchy and position – to steward systems to be more healthy and equitable. 

We’re finding this collective leadership approach is resonating across diverse contexts. This includes urban, regional and rural contexts, and the community, not-for-profit, government and philanthropic sectors. 

Our focus is on fostering  networked leadership to create more equitable systems. This may be in organisations, in community, or in other fluid configurations, as we respond to local and national challenges. 

We’ve been testing and learning ways of supporting this that are relevant to the Australian contexts. We’re also learning alongside and contributing to a growing field of systems leadership globally. We believe there is much that Australia has to share about how leadership can be reimagined and cultivated to meet the demands and opportunities of our time. 

Here are 3 key insights on what it takes to lead in complexity from leadership initiatives we’re running with people and their networks across Australia. 

Working across difference and polarities 

It can feel uncomfortable to reach out and deeply listen to those with whom we differ. But we know this leadership capability – to create the conditions so we can work across differences and move beyond polarised perspectives – is more critical than ever. 

Encouragingly, we’ve noticed over the last year this is no longer an abstract idea.  The leaders we’re working with are more readily identifying binary thinking. This may be in themselves, their systems or in the wider context. 

We hear leaders reflect on binary thinking in how they describe their work. For instance, and this may sound familiar to you, “top down or bottom up change”, “the right way to do community led systems change (implying there is a wrong way), or “systems change vs programmatic change” (as if it is an either/or). 

Building the muscle to be aware of our binary thinking is a leadership act. As leaders listen for multiple perspectives and find the ‘and’, rather than the ‘or’, the path to change can be more inclusive.

This also feels more balanced for leaders. They tell us it can feel liberating to be released from the trench of holding a particular perspective, and to enable a path forward to emerge. 

Defining the boundaries of the system we’re seeking to shift 

It’s important for leaders to be able to define the boundaries of a system they’re seeking to shift. This makes them more aware of their agency and how they can be effective. 

Often when we try to map ‘the system’ it ends up overwhelming – a never-ending entanglement of spaghetti. We may start to doubt our agency within the system and think maybe ‘other people’ are better placed to do this tricky ‘systems work’.

Yet everyone is part of a system and has some agency within it. Our ability to define what that system is – and is not – is vital to our capacity to shift it. This means we need to spend time being conscious and explicit about the boundaries of a system. 

This includes understanding a system’s purpose, stakeholders, decision makers, geographic scope or collective focus. This is not an isolated one-off technical step. It’s an ongoing process of negotiation, adaptability and discernment. 

We repeatedly notice that boundaries are a leader’s friend. Understanding system boundaries can bring us clarity and relief as we work within the complexity and uncertainty of our times.

Noticing and working with patterns

Patterns in a system are repeating behaviours, power dynamics, relationships and structures. They are interconnected and create particular experiences of a system.

We may start to realise that the system is not ‘out there’ to be fixed, but that our experiences of an initiative, organisation or collaboration are connected to the system and its patterns. We can then start to practise looking for core patterns that are showing up across scales, near and far. 

We’ve noticed leaders start to ask questions such as “how is what is going on in the sector, mirroring what we are experiencing in our organisation?”. Or, “how might this challenge I’m having with this person be part of a broader pattern of our country’s relationship with authority?”. 

This can bring perspective as we realise where and how our work is not so personal. Also, it can be empowering to see we have more agency to shift systems than we sometimes think. 

The macro intergenerational work of changing systems often shows up in the here and now. We start to see, more and more, the micro-interactions where we do have agency. We can change how we show up and make different decisions.

In 2024 we’re thrilled to continue to partner with diverse organisations and collaborations, as we deepen our practices for collective leadership in Australian contexts. We look forward to exchanging stories and insights, as we evolve from a hero narrative to one of collective leadership. Or, in the words of another cultural icon, ‘we can be heroes’.

Image: Network members from the first Philanthropic Leadership for Systemic Change program.

Back to all