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Embracing Systemic Approach: Principle 1 of Conscious and Regenerative Leadership



In our Principles of Conscious & Regenerative Leadership, in which the first of those principles is to Integrate a Whole System Approach.


The call for leadership roles that integrate a whole system approach —one that considers the entire system, its parts, and their interdependencies—is gaining momentum in the business landscape, where the traditional siloed approach to decision-making and management is evolving.


In this article, we are going to delve into the concept of integrating a whole-system approach to leadership and explore how it can pave the way for organisational excellence. 



Understanding a Whole System Approach to Leadership


The whole system approach to leadership is a holistic approach to leadership and organisation development that can be used by any leader at any organisational level to optimise the organisation (or part of it) to create sustainable high performance in conditions of high complexity and uncertainty (Coffey, 2010).

A whole system approach to leadership entails viewing an organisation as an open, dynamic, and interconnected ecosystem. Instead of focusing solely on individuals or individual departments or functions, leaders adopting this approach consider the organisation in its entirety, recognising the intricate relationships and dependencies among various components, including the external environment.


In the model-Burke Letwin (Tate, 2009) the external environment is the input, and individual and organisational performance is the output, while the throughput, or the process according to general systems theory contains other organisational variables (Burke and Litwin, 1992).


Key Principles of a Whole System Approach to Leadership

A whole system approach to leadership involves considering the organisation as an interconnected and interdependent system. This approach aims to optimize the entire system for better performance, sustainability, and resilience.


Here are key principles that underpin a whole system approach to leadership:


  • Systems Thinking: A holistic mindset that examines the organisation as a complex, adaptive system. Leaders consider the ripple effects of decisions on different facets of the business.

  • Awareness of Self: Developing self-awareness is the necessary beginning to developing powerful ways to respond to situations. If you are not aware of your motivations, feelings, and beliefs, you cannot make effective decisions about how to behave.

  • Interconnectedness: Acknowledge that every part of the organisation is interconnected. Changes in one area can ripple across the entire system, impacting performance and outcomes.

  • Collaboration and Communication: Foster a culture of collaboration and open communication. Breakdown silos that hinder the flow of information and ideas, encouraging cross-functional collaboration.

  • Adaptability: Recognise that the business environment is constantly evolving. Leaders must be adaptable and responsive, ready to adjust strategies and operations to align with changing circumstances.

  • Deep Listening: Conversations have the power to transform our understanding and generate innovative options for action. A key component of successful conversations is deep listening, which means listening to learn and suspending judgment.

  • Seeking Diverse Perspectives: A whole systems approach thrives on the respectful inclusion of all voices. From this viewpoint, conflicting opinions do not present a problem; rather, they present a potential resource that can sharpen thinking and lead to innovative options for action.

  • Suspending Certainty, Embracing Uncertainty: Suspending certainty enables you to see beyond your habitual lenses to get a broader and potentially more accurate view of what is going on. It also creates room for diverse views so that new or different knowledge can come forth.

Benefits of Integrating a Systemic Approach to Leadership

Integrating a whole system approach to leadership brings about a range of benefits that extend beyond traditional hierarchical models. Here's a deeper exploration of the advantages associated with embracing this holistic leadership style:

  • Optimised Performance: Leaders that use a whole system approach ensure that all components of the organisation work cohesively, leading to optimised overall performance. By understanding the interconnectedness of various elements, leaders can identify and address inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and redundancies.

  • Enhanced Adaptability: Leaders who embody a whole system approach encourage adaptability and flexibility in response to changing circumstances. By acknowledging the dynamic nature of the business environment, leaders can steer the organisation more effectively through uncertainties and rapid shifts in market conditions.

  • Make informed decision-making: Leaders adopting a whole system approach have a more comprehensive understanding of the organisation's dynamics. This insight enables more informed decision-making, while considering the impact on different departments, teams, and stakeholders, leading to better outcomes.

  • Foster innovation and creativity: Leaders who embody a whole system approach promote a culture of continuous learning, innovation, and improvement. By encouraging diverse perspectives and cross-functional collaboration, leaders create an environment where new ideas can flourish, driving innovation and adaptation to emerging trends.

  • Stronger Collaboration: Leaders with a whole system approach breakdown the silos, fostering a collaborative culture where information flows freely, and teams work together to achieve common goals.

  • Heightened Employee Engagement: Leaders with a whole system approach decentralise decision-making, empowering individuals and teams to contribute meaningfully to the organisation’s success.

  • Enhanced Resilience: Leaders operating with a whole system approach are better equipped to handle challenges and disruptions. By building resilience in the organisational structure, leaders can navigate uncertainties, absorb shocks, and recover more swiftly.

  • Alignment with Purpose: This alignment fosters a sense of shared vision and values among employees, enhancing motivation and commitment to the organisation's purpose.

  • Integrating Ethics and Sustainability: Leaders operating with a whole system approach naturally incorporate ethical considerations and sustainability into their decision-making processes, contributing positively to society and the Planet.

  • Transparent Information Flow: Transparent and open communication channels ensure that information flows efficiently throughout the organisation, promoting a shared understanding of goals, challenges, and successes.

  • Positive External Influence: Leaders with a whole system approach recognise the impact of their organisations on society. By considering social and environmental responsibilities, organisations can contribute positively to the well-being of the communities they operate in.

  • Sustainable Success: Leaders with a whole system approach promote the long-term health and sustainability of the organisation. By considering the interconnectedness of various elements, leaders can make decisions that contribute to the organisation's enduring success.

In essence, integrating a whole system approach to leadership creates a dynamic, adaptable, and purpose-driven organisational culture that not only thrives in the present but is also well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the future. This systemic perspective positions the organisation to achieve sustained success while making a positive impact on its stakeholders and the wider community.



Implementing a Systemic Approach to Leadership

One cannot really learn to swim by reading a book about swimming. At some point, you need to be in the water. Similarly, the characteristics of the whole systems approach to leadership need to be practiced being learned.

  • Leadership Training and Coaching: Providing leadership training and coaching that emphasises systems thinking and encourages leaders to broaden their perspectives beyond individual functions.

  • Cross-Functional Teams: Forming cross-functional teams that bring together diverse expertise to tackle complex challenges. This approach encourages collaboration and breaks down departmental barriers.

  • Transparent Communication: Fostering transparent communication channels where information flows freely between departments. This ensures that leaders have a comprehensive understanding of the organisation's dynamics.

  • Continuous Learning: Encouraging a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Leaders and team members should be open to feedback, ready to adapt, and committed to ongoing development.

What helps the most is to turn your life into a learning laboratory. To integrate a whole system approach, leaders should:

  • Remain on the lookout for opportunities to practice and experiment.

  • Use adaptive action as a learning strategy.

  • Cultivate comfort with ambiguity and not-knowing. For example: the next time you find yourself confused (about anything) before you jump to “fixing” the moment with more information, ask yourself, “How can I relax into this confusion? Can I be okay with ‘not-knowing’ right now?”.

  •   Keep a log of your experiments, challenges, discoveries, and triumphs. As you start to cultivate characteristics of a whole system approach to leadership, you may notice how they overlap and support each other.



Integrating the principle of a whole system approach to leadership is not just a strategy; it's a paradigm shift. As we navigate an era of rapid change and interconnected global challenges, leaders who embrace this integrative perspective are better positioned to steer their organisations toward sustained success. By understanding the intricacies of the whole system, leaders can foster innovation, resilience, and a culture of continuous improvement—an approach that resonates with the complexities of the 21st-century business landscape.


What about your leadership approach? Do you consider that you embody a whole systems approach as a leader? If not, what are the challenges you face to not doing it? If yes, what do you see as major benefits or outcomes?





Coffey, G. (2010), A Systems Approach to Leadership. Econpapers, 978-3-642-01194-8.

Lockwood, B. & Domingues, L. (2023). The Principles of Conscious & Regenerative Leadership.


Tate, W. (2009), ‪The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective. ‪Triarchy Press, 2009. 306. ‪0955768179, 9780955768170



Further Reading



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