Leadership Skills

Systems leadership theory

What is systems leadership theory?

Systems leadership theory is a leadership approach that focuses on leading and managing complex systems, such as organizations, communities, or networks.

It is based on the idea that leadership is not just about individuals in positions of power, but also about the relationships, processes, and structures that shape how work is done and how problems are solved.

Systems leadership theory is characterized by a focus on the interconnections and interdependencies within and between organizations, and the recognition that these systems are constantly changing and evolving.

In systems leadership, the leader’s role is to understand the complex dynamics of the system and to facilitate collaboration and coordination among the different parts of the system to achieve desired outcomes.


This requires leaders to have a holistic view of the system, to understand the different perspectives and needs of the various stakeholders, and to be able to navigate the complex web of relationships and processes that make up the system.


The systems leadership theory was first introduced by a number of researchers and practitioners in the fields of organizational behavior, management, and leadership in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

The theory has been developed and expanded by a number of different researchers, practitioners and organizations, and there is no one individual who can be considered as the sole “inventor” of the theory.

One of the early contributions to the development of systems leadership theory came from Peter Senge, who introduced the concept of “systems thinking” in his book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (1990). Senge’s work focuses on the importance of understanding and managing the interconnectedness of organizational systems and the role of leaders in fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Another early contribution came from Barry Oshry, who developed the “Power Lab” program, which provides training and education on systems leadership and systems thinking. Oshry’s work focuses on the importance of understanding power dynamics and the role of leaders in managing these dynamics to achieve positive outcomes.

Additionally, other researchers such as Margaret Wheatley and Ronald Heifetz have also contributed to the development of systems leadership theory, highlighting the importance of adaptive leadership, collective leadership, and the role of leaders in fostering resilient systems.

Overall, the theory of systems leadership has been developed and expanded by many different researchers, practitioners, and organizations, and it continues to evolve as new insights and perspectives are added to the field.

The systems leadership theory emphasizes the importance of the following concepts:

  1. Systems thinking: The ability to understand and manage the interconnectedness of the system and how changes in one part of the system affect the whole.
  2. Collaboration and partnership: The ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders to build partnerships, encourage collaboration, and foster a sense of shared purpose.
  3. Adaptability and learning: The ability to be adaptable and continuously learning, recognizing that the systems are constantly changing and evolving.
  4. Long-term perspective: The ability to have a long-term perspective, recognizing that short-term solutions may not be sustainable in the long run.
  5. Complex problem solving: The ability to solve complex problems that span multiple organizations and sectors.

Systems leadership theory is often applied in complex, rapidly-changing environments, where traditional leadership approaches may not be effective. It is a relatively new field, but it has been found to be effective in addressing complex, multi-faceted problems, and in creating sustainable solutions that benefit all stakeholders.



Marty Hoffman

Marty Hoffman, MBA, PhD Management Consultant for Fortune 500 and Corporate Strategist 📍 San Francisco, CA More »

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