The Building Blocks of System Leadership – A Powerful Impact Tool For Nonprofits

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In this article, we’re going to describe system leadership and show you just what it takes and why your ability to do so may determine whether or not your collaboration with other organizations survives another year.

In a 2015 SSIR article “The Dawn of System Leadership” by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania, describe system leaders as “someone able to bring forth collective leadership”.

Let’s review the core of system leadership and how it can be used in nonprofit collective impact initiatives.

What is system leadership?

Let’s start by understanding what system leadership actually is before trying to apply it to nonprofit collective impact initiatives.

Given the definition of a system leader above, we would then define system leadership as the ability to build and lead cross-sector networks that transcend the individual missions of each organization to achieve shared goals more impactful than any one organization.

For myself, there is great interest in one specific type of network: a broad collective impact initiative (CI). CI’s are characteristic of the new field of Collective Impact, and System Leadership is critical to this end.

Nonprofits today suffer from an inability to work together towards a single goal which results in the sector as a whole not being able to accomplish its collective goals.

The difficulty nonprofits have working together stems from their historically fragmented nature – many of today’s most popular nonprofit organizations were created as side-projects by entrepreneurs who didn’t want to compete or undermine the existing organizations in their field of interest. Not only do nonprofits have different missions, they also often have different methods of operation and management styles as well.

The result is a sector that has enormous potential to accomplish great things – but one with no shared goals and little understanding of how all the pieces fit together to achieve a greater effect.

Let’s look at the three skills that make for good system leaders

The Three Core Capabilities Of System Leaders

System leaders must obtain and embrace three core capabilities in order to become effective in such a capacity. These capabilities are the ability to see the larger system; fostering reflection and more generative conversations; shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

1. See the larger system

System leaders must be able to see the entire system and how all the pieces fit together. We call this having a systems-level view. This means that instead of just focusing on your own organization or even your own point of view, you need to seek out an understanding of another’s viewpoint and understand how you relate to one another in order to create truly effective collaboration. This is where collaboration allows the creation of a solution that no one organization could have determined on its own.

2. Foster reflection and more generative conversations

System leaders must foster a reflective environment whereby people can step back from the day-to-day minutiae of rule-following in order to reflect on purpose, meaning, and impact. Where this doesn’t happen as naturally, system leaders may be required to facilitate structured reflection exercises amongst members of their collective. This is about “hearing” another point of view in order to understand and include the perspective.

System leaders must help the collective to do deep work on where the initiative is right now and what their desired future state looks like. In order for this to happen, they must be able to foster constructive generative conversations throughout the system as a whole. These are conversations that challenge assumptions, explore possibilities and create new insights. 

3. Co-Creating The Future

In order to meaningfully co-create the future, we must share our own visions and then learn from one another as we collaborate towards a shared vision.  System leaders can help create this environment by continuously seeking ways for their teams to leverage each other’s unique strengths to achieve even more impact than they could do alone.

This is much more than vision casting. It is about achieving a state when members sharing inspirational visions of the desired future state, building trust through shared accomplishments, and address difficult realities about challenges and opportunities.

Natural Pathways To Growth System Leadership

Senge, Hamilton, and Kania identified six gateways to developing system leadership. I think “pathways” is a better term. Gateways are something that you can walk through and it’s a binary event. A pathway is a path that must be walked over time in order to achieve the destination.

The six pathways to system leadership are:

  1. Redirecting Attention – The two most critical actions that system leadership can have are to change the focus of attention and redirect it. By changing the focus of attention, system leaders must be able to guide conversations away from what is easiest or what has worked in the past towards sharing views on where resources should go next; towards ideas previously unheard of, and away from fear-based leadership.
  2. Reorienting Strategy – This is all about creating the space for change rather than trying to make change happen yourself. it is about creating the conditions that are conducive to generating change not only with direction but also organically as part of a culture of change.  
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice – System leadership is a practiced skill. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone but can be learned with practice and reflection. I love this quote from the article “all learning is doing, but the doing needed is inherently developmental.” Genuine trust and engagement is a key outcome that system leaders need to help foster, over, and over again. It requires a commitment to practice and hone the skills needed. This is not a technical skill you can learn over a few weeks. Instead, this is a purpose in being and doing that is learned over time, with the wisdom of years.
  4. Tools For Seeing The Larger System – A System Map acts as a visual representation of how the system operates, key touchpoints, and where it meets other organizations. This visual map can help leaders across organizations and members of a team see things they never fully grasped before and that are outside their typical area of expertise.
  5. Tools for fostering reflection and generative conversation – Finding tools that allow for both a disciplined approach to observance combined with facilitating deeper conversations leverage the Ladder of Influence. For example, a System Narrative acts as a vehicle for communicating the values, vision, and purpose of the initiative to everyone throughout the collective. This is about using a tool to have everyone take a breath and walk in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Peer Shadowing is having members of different
  6. Tools for shifting from reacting to co-creating the future – This pathway tackles the creating of a future reality through a group-created effort. No single person or organization can achieve the future state alone. System leaders use appreciative inquiry and the Appreciative Inquiry Summit as ways of getting group members to see the system from different perspectives in order to co-create the future. The practiced system leader will continuously work on the makeup of the group to ensure the right players are in the room to effect real change.

How Does System Leadership Help Achieve Greater Impact?

System Leadership was designed to help people overcome issues that are common in today’s nonprofit and ministry environments. The challenges we face do not happen from bad people making bad decisions, but rather how things are currently set up, and the sheer number of people affected by change creates a challenge in itself.

Leaders who understand system leadership can, over time, bring disparate groups together in order to achieve a common goal or outcome. And while this idea is not new, having a framework to approach the cooperative achievement of goals is newer thinking in the nonprofit arena.

A key challenge when ministries or nonprofits are working to achieve similar goals in the same space is there is an unfortunate competition that evolves.

For example, whether intentional or not, organizations are fighting for the same donor dollars. This competition dilutes to total collective power of donor dollars whereas a collective impact initiative could achieve more for the cause by having each organization work together with others with some specialization or piece of the goal.

This could be done with a combination of individual organizational fundraising combined with a centralized resource pool of fundraising that is distributed to each participating organization based upon need and contribution to the bigger collective impact targets.

Organizations that understand and embrace system leadership principles can put aside their desire to win and instead begin working together to co-create a future reality.

Of course, this is very difficult to achieve, and even more so without generative conversation, reflection, and a shift from reacting to co-creating a better future. This is where system leadership can help achieve collective impact results.


System Leadership is a powerful tool for nonprofits. It can help them work together towards a goal that is greater than any single organization, and it helps leaders become more adept at working with others in the future.

The three skills needed to be successful as a system leader are redirecting attention, reorientation of strategy, and generative conversation (and reflection).

Each pathway helps move leaders towards developing system leadership skills. Redirecting attention is about changing the perceived focus point for those working together. By refocusing conversations from how programs are run to how they could work (moving towards a more collective impact approach), you can develop trust and engagement in a group of strangers working toward a shared goal.

Reorienting strategy deals with having the right conversations during strategic planning to get constituents to think outside the box. The art of creating space for conversation is a powerful tool that helps leaders move from reacting to leading the change needed.

System leadership requires practice but by following these steps you may find yourself on your way to becoming an effective system leader! Which of the 3 pathways did you think was most interesting? Let us know what other resources or tools would have helped make this article even better!


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