Collective action—action powered by all who have a stake in social change—is essential to making progress on big, interconnected priorties like economic inequity, public safety, and public health in our communities. But it can’t happen by itself. In the recent SSIR article “The Dawn of System Leadership,” authors Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania articulate the value of specific capabilities—such as the ability to foster reflection and generative conversations—that enable community leaders to build and sustain the conditions for collective action on social issues.

The article implicitly asks, “Where do we find and how do we create more systems leaders?” That is a critically important question for those of us who are tasked with helping our communities strengthen their capacity to achieve sustained positive change within civic systems. While we work at different organizations, we have a shared interest in answering that question, and we are working together to more clearly define and promote the value of collaborative leadership (or what the authors call “systems leadership”). We wholeheartedly agree with the authors that we are at the beginning of the beginning in learning how to catalyze and guide systemic action.

As the Senge, Hamilton, and Kania highlight, exercising systems leadership requires different skills and capabilities than exercising organizational leadership. Most people considered to be community leaders begin their leadership journey inside an organization. Organizations have hierarchies, lines of authority, and established processes for achieving change. Those features are less clear (or completely absent) within the complex civic systems that shape education, public health, food security, safety, and other priorities.

Thousands of organizational leaders discover those differences by participating in community-based leadership programs. These programs exist in nearly every large- to medium-size community in the country. They tap organizational leaders from business, nonprofits, government, education, law, and other sectors, and expose them to an intense, months-long curriculum that strengthens their professional network, and their understanding of the opportunities and challenges within their community.

But we’ve observed that many leaders in these programs become frustrated when they realize that the skills and tools they use to create change within their organizations don’t translate well to complex civic systems. What’s more, they don’t understand why their leadership skills don’t translate.

For two years we’ve been working together to mitigate that frustration by creating scenarios and exercises that help leadership program participants: 1) understand how complex civic systems differ from organizations; 2) understand why those differences require cross-sector collaboration to achieve change; and 3) develop and practice the skills that collaborative civic leadership requires. We believe that with a carefully designed curriculum, community-based leadership programs can help organizational leaders become stronger systems leaders.

We focus on strengthening three skills:

  • Inquiry: We ask participants to use tools such as appreciative inquiry (or AI, an asset-based learning process that engages people in a discovery process focused on designing and implementing positive change) and strategic thinking to sharpen their ability to ask compelling questions of stakeholders. Compelling questions are a tool of AI and differ significantly from standard closed- and most open-ended questions. Leaders who use compelling questions help develop what the authors call “collective intelligence” among the system’s stakeholders. We provide program participants opportunities to ask compelling questions of experienced systems leaders so that in addition to practicing this skill, they learn how others have used collaborative leadership to achieve change.

    In a recent workshop, one leader, an attorney, said that his legal training prepared him to ask closed-ended questions. These were designed to elicit a response that would be in the best interest of his client. Our inquiry exercise helped him see that he needed to switch gears and ask different types of questions to create a shared understanding of how systems change occurs.
  • Understanding Context: Leaders need to understand the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders that shape the context for collaboration.

    For example, are stakeholders stuck in “turf protection mode” or are they committed to disrupting the status quo? We use scenarios that engage leaders in role-playing to help them practice surfacing the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders.
  • Building Trust: Cross-sector collaborations move at the speed of trust. Trust is fragile; it’s also currency for collaborative leadership. Peer-to-peer learning exercises give leaders an opportunity to practice their inquiry skills, and learn how to build trust within systems, the benefits of such trust, and the consequences of trying to operate in a system with little trust.

As Senge, Hamilton, and Kania emphasize, systems leadership requires a great deal of rigor and practice. The leaders we work with value the opportunity to explore and practice these skills within the safety of a collective learning environment with a group of peers that they have grown to trust.

One corporate leader recently encapsulated the challenge of systems leadership and the value of a safe space to practice these skills. In a debrief session, we discussed how the solutions that work within complex civic systems are by their very nature emergent—we don’t know them in advance. The leader shared that in a corporate setting, saying “I don’t know” is often a sign of a weakness—and is therefore rarely uttered. He was thankful to have a place to practice saying, “I don’t know.” If more community-based leadership programs embed this kind of skills development into their curriculum, each year our communities will have a few more organizational leaders prepared to step across the threshold and become system leaders. While not a complete solution to the challenges outlined by Senge, Hamilton, and Kania, it is one way to accelerate the awakening to the value of system leadership.