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What does Systems Leadership even mean?

Published: 27.02.2024
Anna McKeon Director of Capability Building
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IAPB recently launched the Young Systems Leader Awards (nominations close 4th March – quick – last week to apply!). But what does systems leadership even mean? And why is it important in eye health? 

We talk about systems change in eye health because we see the importance of recognising that improving someone’s eye health takes more than a clinician, or someone selling glasses. It takes a system of people, services, structures, products, research, and technology – all working together to support individuals and communities to understand the need for, and have appropriate access to, eye care throughout their life. Eye care systems in communities, countries, and globally, are complex and dynamic, impacted by many different things.  

If we want to change the eye care system in order to improve it, the leadership skills we need are a little different from a conventional leadership approach of top-down influencing and direction-setting. Rather, leaders looking to create change in a system need to be aware of the dynamic processes and interactions that occur between them, those they work with, and the system itself.  

Different sectors and leadership schools emphasise different aspects of systems leadership. For example: 

At IAPB, we have gathered ideas and recommendations from systems leadership literature and case studies, and identified a set of skills that we think are helpful for systems leaders in eye health, considering the challenges that we face.  

  • Working and collaborating across sectors  
  • Embracing opportunities, being adaptable and flexible   
  • Trying new approaches – experimenting and piloting ideas  
  • Shifting from reactive problem solving to collaborative planning for the future 
  • Building a culture of learning, in which failures are lessons to be shared  

Systems leadership skills aren’t just important for chief executives, or senior directors, they are key skills to nurture across all roles if we are to create an environment in which change is possible. That’s why IAPB is providing an opportunity to amplify and celebrate these skills through the Young Systems Leader Awards. By showing what’s already possible, we hope the Young Systems Leaders can inspire others to work in this way.