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Leading Systems Change

This is an Education Scotland Leadership Programme.

Leading Systems Change supports the delivery of excellence and equity through a whole-systems approach to integrated leadership. It reflects the rapidly changing local government and public sector landscape in times of ambiguity and change.

The programme is a collaboration between the Professional Learning and Leadership team in Education Scotland and ADES. It aims to support the delivery of excellence, equity and social justice through a whole-systems approach to integrated leadership. It supports the development of a common taxonomy of leadership and extend participants’ strategic capacity and understanding of the broader context of public service provision within which the current and future planning and delivery of Scottish education takes place. The programme reflects the rapidly changing local government and public service landscape in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). It aims to prepare those working in public services in general, and education services in particular, for the increasingly diverse and complex challenges which they will undoubtedly encounter when they move into principal leadership roles which may well demand the strategic and operational overview of provision which is outwith their professional background, experience or expertise.

Programme structure

The programme is structured around two separate two-day core residential events and two one-day events.

At the first residential event, participants will set their individual learning objectives which will be discussed and challenged through the formation of learning groups.

Participants are supported to consider system issues through collaborative practice and peer coaching.

Core elements are:

  • two two-day core residential events and two development days
  • the option of a series of extended leadership workshops
  • a learning event focused on futures thinking.

And will include consideration of:

  • Working in complex systems
  • Systems leadership
  • Public narrative as systems leadership practice
  • New Public Governance

  • Towards a learning system - creating intelligent data
  • Managing and sustaining effective change.
What are the benefits?

Programme participants will develop their skills in a number of areas. The programme has at its core the six core characteristics of whole-systems leadership (University of Minnesota and Life Science Foundation, 2010):

  • deep listening
  • awareness of systems
  • awareness of self
  • seeking diverse perspectives
  • suspending certainty, embracing uncertainty
  • taking adaptive action.

These are underpinned by the six key dimensions of systems leadership:

Ways of feeling or personal core values: What calls us to leadership and gives us the energy and resilience to persevere, even when the going gets tough.

Ways of observing or perceiving: The ability to observe from the “balcony” as well as “the dance floor”, being sensitive to different narratives, seeking out and listening to diverse views.

Ways of thinking: Curiosity and the ability to synthesise learning from different sources to make sense of complexity.

Ways of relating: The ability to build and maintain relationships, based upon self- awareness and empathy
Ways of doing: Enabling and mobilizing others to join in collective action by constructing and communicating a compelling narrative of why change is needed.

Ways of being: The qualities that build confidence and trust, bravery and the courage to take risks, resilience and patience, drive, energy and optimism, humility and magnanimity.

[From: Systems Leadership: Exceptional leadership in exceptional times, Ghate, Lewis and Wellbourn, The Virtual Staff College. 2013]

Key design features:

  • A single national programme for senior leaders in education and allied services, rooted in systems leadership and the principles of GIRFEC
  • Learning focused on “real work” – providing an opportunity for small groups of senior leaders to apply alternative approaches to leadership to real systemic education challenges
  • Informed by the latest research and practice into systems leadership in public services with a particular focus on services for children, young people and families.

The programme will provide:

  • innovative and original leadership constructs, approaches, methodology and content
  • a whole-systems approach to integrated leadership
  • a focus on national, local and community leadership challenges
  • a detailed and deep understanding of the national policy imperatives and consequent challenges for local government in general and services for children, young people and families as informed by the core principles of GIRFEC and Curriculum for Excellence
  • the opportunity for participants to collaborate with their peers on the programme to determine and work on a specific systems leadership challenges.
How is the programme delivered?

Collaborative skills are now essential for success in public services. Organisations should make the ability to collaborate a key requirement for employment, development and promotion at every level. Leaders need to see themselves as part of the collective leadership of the system, as well as a leader of their own organisation. The leadership skills required include:

  • working across organisational boundaries
  • operating in networks without clear rules
  • instinctively making connections
  • building shared values and trust
  • drawing on a wide range of perspectives and resources across systems and building coalitions of support.

In response to this, the Leading Systems Change programme provides learning opportunities for participants to experience, learn about and utilise appropriate methodologies to develop, and deepen, understanding of their current environment at a system level and from this identify areas of focus for self and system learning, change and collaboration.

The programme content is themed throughout to provide participants with enhanced means of analysis of possible approaches to systemic change to enable a community/ neighbourhood/regional focus working to resolve systemic issues impacting negatively on the quality of educational and life opportunities for children, young people and families in the community.

Who is it for?

The programme is intended for those who:

  • are in senior leadership roles in Scottish Education including service directors, service managers, those likely to have key roles in the new Regional Improvement Collaboratives and their equivalents across local authorities and national organisations
  • are committed to deepening their learning about leadership and making behavioural changes that impact positively on the system and
  • are committed to sharing their learning from the programme with colleagues and others.

Programme participants will be highly committed, with the ability to dedicate the time to complete the programme in full, and will require sponsorship from their Director, who is likely to be their line manager or another appropriate senior colleague.

Those who feel they meet the criteria will be required to commit the time to complete the programme in full including participation at all residential events and learning group activity.


The programme takes place over 6 months.

Funding and costs

As the Professional Learning and Leadership Team is currently funded to develop a suite of programmes, participation in the programme is free of charge, however there is no funding for cover. A small fund for travel expenses is available only for participants from Eilean Siar, Shetland and Orkney.

Applying for the programme and further information

Applications must be made through the local authority.

For further information about this programme, or for an informal discussion with a Lead Specialist, contact us at edspll@educationscotland.gov.scot.