This common framing of leadership, where outcomes depend solely on the abilities of individual leaders, leaves little room for the possibility that everyone in the system has valuable, relevant insights to contribute. Because systems are complex, relying on a leader to orchestrate change from a pedestal does not work. In fact, attempting to train and hire leaders from within a framework that puts people in separate boxes inevitably reinforces patterns of hierarchy and isolation that underpin existing systems.

If, instead, we see leadership as a matter of finding and following new paths in collaboration with others, then it is more about understanding interactions among people and their environments and navigating a variety of unpredictable situations along the way. Creating systems change, therefore, lies not in looking to a single person but in engaging people to connect and lead together through the unknown.

In systems of all kinds, individuals practicing leadership often come up against the constraints of limiting, exclusionary, and unjust conditions and cultures. Organizations looking to build people’s leadership capacities—especially the capacity to catalyze social change—and the organizations or other systems where these individuals end up must therefore deepen their understanding of how systems and people interact and what conditions increase the likelihood of change. The fact is, no system changes on its own. Change occurs when people use their influence to advance it. However, systems rarely change because of one person’s choices and actions; systems change requires choices and actions from many people and an environment that supports shared leadership.

Read the full article about systems change by Sida Ly-Xiong at Stanford Social Innovation Review.