Melissa Surgey, Managing Consultant, shares her reflections on system leadership for emerging leaders.

System leadership very much feels like the public sector trend of the moment. In policy, journals, conferences, courses – everyone seems to be calling for it to be the solution to the multitude of challenges the sector is facing, from funding to workforce. Most of us now acknowledge individual organisations need to work more collaboratively in ways they didn’t previously to tackle some of our most complex issues, not only to benefit us as organisations but also the public. “We need a system approach” or “The system leaders need to…” are two phrases I’ve commonly heard throughout my roles in NHS management – but what does system leadership actually mean? And what does it mean for me as someone aspiring to lead in health and social care?

We’ve started exploring these questions through the North West Emerging Leaders Network, which brings together a diverse range of health and social care professionals at different stages of their leadership journeys. At our spring event, we were joined by leaders from each of the North West Integrated Care Systems (ICS) who shared their experiences on working across organisational boundaries. We heard honest and thoughtful reflections from all the speakers on the rewards, challenges and unknowns of working in unchartered territory with new people. Despite having a wealth of senior leadership experience in their “day jobs” – be that a Trust Chief Executive or an Organisational Development Lead – our speakers were venturing into the unknown on another leadership journey to become a system leader.  As part of the Emerging Leaders Network, we’ve often debated what (and who) we mean by “emerging leader”. Reflecting upon our speakers’ experiences, this reinforced my view that our personal leadership journeys transcend years of service or job title and we are all still learning and adapting, whether we’re a Chief Executive, Clinical Lead or Graduate Trainee. The leadership style we develop – and are sometimes conditioned into – during our early careers may not be fit for the job as the NHS evolves or work for us personally as we grow as leaders.

To support developing our individual, organisational and system leadership approaches, we have been using system leadership behaviour cards developed with the North West NHS Leadership Academy. The cards set out a set of crowdsourced behaviours those working in the public sector thought system leaders should demonstrate, grouped into four themes:

  • Being (authenticity; mindset; and resilience, bravery and courage)
  • Relating and communicating (relationships and advocacy; collaboration and co-creation; and trust)
  • Leading and visioning (community and holistic thinking; vision and shared direction; system influence; and leading and enabling others)
  • Delivering (ownership and accountability; delivery; and doing things differently)

These have been a great practical tool to help my thinking around what system leadership means for me, and to me. Whilst there are 13 common behaviours, the prompts on the cards have helped me to acknowledge there is no one way to be a system leader and there are different ways I can demonstrate these behaviours through my own unique (and still developing!) leadership style. We have been trialling using the cards to identify our team strengths within the Transformation Unit and are now using them to develop our team charter to support the whole team in embracing system thinking and developing their leadership styles.

The North West Emerging Leaders Network is organised by the North West NHS Leadership Academy and is open to anyone who self-identifies as an emerging leader in health and care. For further details contact the Leadership Academy at or Melissa Surgey at the NHS Transformation Unit on