Strengthening systems leadership capabilities across Essex

The Backdrop

The language of ‘leaders’ tends to emphasise the individual and typically frames notions of ‘leadership’ through a heroic lens. At Collaborate we believe transformative change requires fewer heroic individuals and more collective endeavour.

Our leadership programmes start from this premise, emphasising the need for those working for change to look up and out, becoming comfortable working across boundaries, with communities, in partnerships, and in conditions of uncertainty.  

This kind of leadership requires less certainty to show the way, and greater willingness to explore, recognising the limitations of our own knowledge and perspectives. As a result, our programmes emphasise having the curiosity to explore, willingness to learn, and being unafraid of not knowing or being wrong. 

They support people to negotiate through difference, build consensus, and mobilise others through persuasive narratives. They build awareness of the dynamics of power – interpersonal, structural and systemic – and how these dynamics can limit or exclude. Most of all, they emphasise that the kind of leadership required for change is a team sport, the work of many, not singular heroic leaders. 

Partners across Essex – from the County Council, the 12 district and borough councils, the two unitary authorities, health, fire, police and the voluntary and community sectors – understand this, and so they are consciously building the capabilities of people from all sectors to lead change in this way.

What we did

We were re-appointed to co-design and deliver the Leading Greater Essex (LGE) programme from 2024, having previously delivered it for three years alongside the Public Service Transformation Academy. 

The year-long programme focuses on understanding systems and acting to change them. We explore the foundations of system thinking and what leadership means in this context, as well as introducing practical skills and approaches such as power analysis, story-telling and action learning. 

The core of the programme is six days of in-person group learning in different venues across Essex. These highly experiential sessions introduce key theories, concepts and approaches from a variety of disciplines and give the cohort opportunities to explore and reflect together through different activities in large and small groups.We also use the cohort itself as a source of data, a fractal of reality, to offer insight into the dynamics of their wider systems. 

Guest speakers from Essex and beyond share their experiences of mobilising change in complex systems, and we use the opportunity of being in different physical locations across the county to build participant’s understanding and networks across place. 

Outside the main modules, participants work in small groups on practical ‘system challenges’, chosen to reflect the breadth and complexity of issues relevant to Greater Essex. Supported by a senior leader from within Essex and group coach, the groups apply the learning from the programme to explore and make recommendations on a live challenge in Essex. 

Additional resources (reading, videos, podcasts) and reflection exercises support participants to think creatively and to connect emotionally with the programme material, extending the learning beyond the teaching time. And dedicated learning and networking events with alumni create a growing network of collective bravery across the region.

Impact and Learning

Now in our fourth year of running LGE, over 200 practitioners from across the public and third sector in Essex have taken part in the programme. Feedback from participants and system sponsors is very positive. The self-assessment surveys (taken at the start, mid-point and end of the programme) show a clear progression in participant’s understanding and confidence in applying the ideas of systems leadership in their work.

While we’re delighted to bring our knowledge and expertise to the programme as teachers, the real magic of the programme happens between peers. The most powerful learning happens when people share how the ideas we’re exploring apply to their context and real-world experiences. For this reason, we invest a great deal of thought in constructing an environment that encourages colleagues to share and creates the safety to be vulnerable and seek support from others. We encourage the group to use themselves as data – a system in microcosm – flexing their system interpretation muscles and practising new behaviours and skills in a safe environment. 

When people whole-heartedly embrace the opportunity to learn together and build the confidence to apply system leadership approaches in their day to day work, we see the dividends it pays for them as individuals, for their organisations, and for the wider system and people they serve.

Embracing this opportunity has resulted in one of my most rewarding experiences of my working life.

LGE participant, 2023 Cohort

Fresh ideas and perspective enable those of us entrenched in the subject matter to approach things with a new curiosity and pursue new creative endeavours in a matter that affects us all.

LGE participant, 2023 Cohort