Taking a System Leadership Approach

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System leadership is a transformative approach to healthcare that transcends organisational boundaries, mobilising a diverse network of stakeholders towards a shared vision.  

In 2023, the NHS North West Leadership Academy worked collaboratively with The Hyndburn Way steering team to implement a bespoke system leadership development programme, aimed at building capability and system leadership approaches across leaders in Hyndburn. The Hyndburn Way stands as a shining example of how system leadership can be embraced to create a truly connected and effective health and care system.  

This article explores the principles of system leadership, drawing inspiration from the Hyndburn Way, and will explore actionable strategies you can implement to cultivate a culture of collaboration, build trust and mutual respect, and empower partners to shape the health and care they deserve. 

In the heart of Lancashire lies Hyndburn, a community on the cusp of a transformative journey. Driven by a bold vision and a ground-breaking initiative called the Hyndburn Way, Hyndburn is pioneering a revolutionary approach to shared working to improve health outcomes in their local community. 

System leadership, a concept that has gained traction in recent years, transcends the traditional hierarchical models of leadership, advocating for a collaborative approach that crosses organisational boundaries. It’s an idea that resonates deeply in Hyndburn, where leaders from diverse sectors – the NHS, local authorities, social care providers, and the voluntary sector – are coming together to tackle the intricate challenges faced by the local health and care system.  

Through the development of a bespoke system leadership programme, delivered by the NHS North West Leadership Academy; leaders are coming together to learn more about system leadership as a theory which they can then implement in real-world settings.  

Building relationships and connections through the programme not only builds individual relationship across the system, but it enables participants to become system sighted, recognising the role, expertise, and individual qualities of each partner in building a health and care system which will leave a positive legacy for the future. Developing a shared understanding and language is only one part of system leadership. The key is to educate all members of the system on the possibilities of system leadership and the value that collaboration can bring. 

At the heart of this collaborative effort lies the concept of place – an approach that emphasises deep understanding of the community’s unique context and needs. System leadership with a place-based focus recognises that health and care issues are deeply embedded within the communities they serve, influenced by factors such as history and culture. By gaining a deeper understanding of these challenges, partners across systems are able to collaboratively work together to develop tailored solutions that resonate with the local context.  

Leaders in Hyndburn are actively engaging with residents and local partners fostering meaningful conversations and listening attentively to their aspirations and challenges. However, it is important to remember that what works for one area, will not necessarily work for another. The recognition of place is a critical element in system leadership, and this extends beyond the development of interventions. This local knowledge is then incorporated into decision-making, with partners no longer operating in a silo, in turn bringing greater efficiency into the system. 

Trust, the cornerstone of any successful collaboration, is another key tenet of a systems leadership approach. Leaders recognise that building trust takes time and effort, but it’s essential for creating a collaborative and effective system. In system leadership, actively building relationships, fostering open communication, and demonstrating commitment to transparency and accountability is important. Too often the requirement to ‘trust me’ can be a coded way of saying ‘don’t challenge me,’ and so through recognising this, partners within the Hyndburn Way have been open to exploring and accepting difference, acknowledging that they are each capable of seeing the world differently to their partners and yet can work together towards a shared goal. 

System leadership in Hyndburn has been a journey with its challenges and triumphs. Recognising and navigating the complexities of the health and care system has been a significant aspect of this journey. Acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable and opportunities for improvement exist has been paramount. However, despite these challenges, partners within the system are driven by an unwavering belief in the power of collaboration and their shared vision of a healthier, more integrated system which works for their community. This shared vision has been the driving force behind the progress made so far.  

As the Hyndburn Way continues to evolve, it stands as a testament to the transformative power of system leadership. Having a focus on collaboration, place-based engagement, and continuous improvement provides a roadmap for transforming health and care systems across the North-West and beyond. By embracing these principles, communities can work together to create healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable futures for all. 

In a recent episode of our Leadership Live podcast, Michelle Howard, a Leadership and Management Specialist and Host of Leadership Live, welcomed Lyndsey Sims, Chief Executive of Hyndburn Leisure, a leisure and culture charity and the lead for the Hyndburn Way project and Belinda Weir, a Leadership and Organisational Development Consultant with a special interest in systems leadership. Together they discussed the benefits of adopting a system leadership approach.  

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