An earlier column explored the first two of the Department of Health’s change principles for the NHS: co-production and “subsidiarity”. Both seek to get people working together to effect change by enabling them to fully exercise their power and authority.

When implemented alongside the other two key principles - effective leadership and aligning different parts of the system towards the same goals - their whole becomes greater than the sum of their parts. Together they can achieve cultural change in complex living systems.

“A leader ensures the right people are at the party and are enjoying themselves”

The New Economics Foundation points out that, to achieve the mutual support and reciprocity required of true co-production, leaders must recognise that “the system” includes their local neighbourhoods as resources for “love and comfort, approval and disapproval, caring and mentoring and… civic engagement that ranges from attending meetings to making phone calls to mobilising social protest”.

It is crucially about creating both the opportunity and ability for people to give the best of themselves regardless of their role in the system. As the quote goes: “If you think you are too small to be effective you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” It is leadership as the release of potential rather than the slow grind of training up competencies.

Heroes and servants

We need new metaphors for leadership that meet this challenge and go beyond the traditional notions of leaders as heroes or servants - often they must be both. In his forthcoming paper in the International Journal of Leadership in Public Services Mark McKergow invokes the idea of leader as host - the person who organises and throws the party and has ultimate responsibility for the venue remaining intact.

A host ensures the right people are there and enjoying themselves, and the conditions are set for relationships to flourish. But they also need to visibly participate themselves - what would guests think if their host ate in the kitchen at their own party? They should also be welcoming to strangers, while also defending boundaries to ensure the integrity of the space. You also cannot be a successful host without willing guests - so you must win hearts and minds to make people want to bring both to the party.

The key to system alignment and engagement is to host opportunities where people can envision a preferred future together. Working with these best motives allows more scope for self organisation around emerging needs and resources. It means returning power to the places where it has drained away.

The use of solution focused, strengths based and appreciative approaches to work within living systems is a powerful way to help people recover their authority. We need to build from strengths, experience and opportunities to give our best at every level.