Systems leadership — seeing the forest for the trees

Fiona McKenzie
6 min readApr 25, 2023

A metaphor for exploring systems leadership in the context of emergence rather than intervention

Fiona McKenzie and Seanna Davidson

We subscribe to the school of thought that systems transformation requires the challenging of deeply held beliefs and the application of new ways of thinking. This includes paying attention to the myths and metaphors that provide powerful representations of thinking — old and new.

Given how persistent narratives around heroic leadership remain in Western culture, we believe that part of the work of systems leadership is to be creative in exploring new metaphors. This is not a trivial or academic exercise. The way in which society conceives of and enacts leadership is having profound consequences for the perpetuation of deep system structures and patterns, including who gets to decide what values, vision and purpose drive systems change.

There have been many developments in considering what leadership means as an individual capability. This includes developments in the concept of systems leadership. To help paraphrase what is a rich field, the current framing of systems leadership appears to focus heavily on creating ‘the space’ for change and intentionally convening to create ‘systems change’. A simple metaphor for this framing is ‘leader as chef’, where their role is to foster the kitchen as a safe space for holding heat whilst enabling many sous chefs to do the novel mixing of ingredients and the creation of new foods. They might ask who needs to be brought into the kitchen, or what ingredients are needed in the pantry, but there is a clearly defined ‘leader’ of this space. Many will be familiar with this type of leadership and the roles of coach, host, guide, enabler, facilitator and protector.

This works well when considering intentional or organised systems change efforts. However, it can still fall into the framing of leadership as the static role of a single leader. Or more significantly, it can perpetuate and justify current systems patterns which keep in place the usual suspects who have the existing resources and agency to nominate themselves as the designers and convenors of systems change.

And so it becomes necessary to challenge the notion of ‘systems leadership’ altogether and to make visible a relational, shared and dynamic leadership that more resembles a system than an individual role.

And so it becomes necessary to challenge the notion of ‘systems leadership’ altogether and to make visible a relational, shared and dynamic leadership that more resembles a system than an individual role.

We pause here to note that, while we are both human geographers by training, with the practice of tuning deeply into patterns, we also recognise our thinking derives from and brings a heavily Westernised approach, and as practitioners in this space we are working predominantly within an Australian context. We emphasise this because there are many First Nations traditions and wisdom that has long conceived of leadership in what we might refer to as systemic and holistic ways. There is much to be learned from First Nations knowledge in this space relating to living systems, holism, distributed collective power, ways of knowing, being, doing and more. To them, the idea of systems leadership is old, not new. We also acknowledge that many other practitioners and authors who have explored ideas of leadership as a system and there are a plethora of great theories, papers and academic treatise out there. We are building on what has gone before us.

To help challenge our own mental models and safeguard us against reducing ‘leadership’ to a label for the actions of individuals or parts, we have sought a compelling metaphor — one that would aid conversation and exploration of leadership in the context of emergence rather than intervention. To this end, we have adopted the simple metaphor of ‘systems leadership as a forest’. And if we are being specific, we are imagining an old growth forest.

We have adopted the simple metaphor of ‘systems leadership as a forest’. And if we are being specific, we are imagining an old growth forest.

Our metaphor won’t hold for theoretical purists but bear with us — it has helped us to frame the ‘when, where, who and how’ of a type of systems leadership that is dynamic, fluid, and moves far beyond the role of an individual as a systems leader. Our thinking goes that ‘systems leadership as a forest’ is:

  • Seasonal — leadership that is taken up at the right time, not all the time, with different approaches, roles and behaviours needed in different contexts
  • Self-selecting — leadership taken up and held by many, not by just one ‘leader’ (or a single tree?) — across position, authority, roles
  • Biodiverse — thrives in a context of a diversity of people and worldviews, ways of knowing, being and doing
  • Layered — taking place at multiple scales, levels, sub-systems, cultures, capacities, ways of knowing
  • Sometimes invisible — often happening ‘in-between’ places and ‘below the radar’ without formal recognition
  • Self-organising — organised patterns of behaviour arise without ‘control’ over decisions on what gets ‘grown’ where
  • Inter-dependent and adaptive — where actions influence each other through interactions, are reliant on many to sustain change, and are re-calibrated from feedback
  • Emergent — always transitioning from one pattern/season/state to another, which can only be seen by looking at the whole forest, not just a single tree. Transitions can include phases of breakdown and renewal.
  • Generative — healthy system parts enable improved health and capacity amongst other system parts. Their interconnected nature is an amplifying feature of health and resilience in the system
  • Existing — this forest has inherent value not defined by others and does not need permission to exist

And if we extend the metaphor even further, we know that there are many different types of forest: temperate, tropical and boreal. We could say that this means there are many ‘forests’ of leadership — most happening in places that we are not.

We want to be clear that none of this disputes the value of individual leaders. A system still needs its parts. Rather, we are focused on reconceptualising leadership in order to situate it as a relational field, one in which the skills of an individual can help nudge a system, but there are likely other requirements or conditions that will foster new patterns and pathways for systemic change.

More work is required. And yet we have found the metaphor has proven powerful in conversations with fellow travellers exploring what systems leadership means, what it does, and what it looks like when it is happening.

We have found the metaphor has proven powerful in conversations with fellow travellers exploring what systems leadership means, what it does, and what it looks like when it is happening.

What we have heard is:

  • Leadership as a shared role is still a novel concept — The idea of shared leadership is much more embedded in First Nations cultures, whereas the concept of the individual heroic leader — once a leader always a leader — is so deeply embedded in western myth and culture it still appears everywhere, including systems change efforts.
  • Mindset influences concepts of structure and space — the notion of intentionally convening or organising to create ‘containers for change’ can quickly fall back onto notions of coordination and control. And this type of ‘orchestration’ does not really grapple with a system’s capacity for self-organisation, the importance of decentralised networks or even the power of disorganised nodes.
  • Leadership without known leaders is a threatening concept — reframing leadership as a domain or phenomena that occurs across a system, and which is not permanently held by any individual can be threatening to those who are used to ‘being in charge’. The idea of leadership that is taken up at the right time, not all the time, with different roles and behaviours needed in different contexts, can be particularly challenging for those that see themselves at the centre of a change story — or who want to know exactly who ‘the leaders’ are in the system.

We offer the metaphor of ‘systems leadership as a forest’ as one way to help others challenge their own thinking and narratives about leadership. This article is one of many contributions to the ongoing dialogue taking place within the systems community as well as many related disciplines about how we might intentionally nudge systems towards healthier states and better futures. It is not intended as a formal or authoritative stance on systems leadership. Rather, we are sharing our reflections in order to provide further provocation on the topic. The sensemaking we can do together will be greater than what we can do alone.

We also know there would be many better metaphors out there. We humbly invite others to share their own thinking and questions in this creative and important endeavour.

Dr Fiona McKenzie is Founder and Director of Orange Compass and is known for facilitating systems transformation initiatives in diverse contexts globally and for her systems thinking expertise.

Dr Seanna Davidson is the Founder and Director of The Systems School and is a systems practitioner, process designer, and educator in systems thinking and systemic change.

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Fiona McKenzie

Director of Orange Compass, Fiona is known for her systems thinking expertise & facilitation of systems transformation initiatives in diverse contexts globally.