Living Systems Leadership offers a holistic way for those involved in sustainable development to work together when navigating complexity and negotiating contested issues.

Critical Reading

Where we begin

Comfort in Complexity: There are many models for how systems are supposed to work. Each has at its core a philosophy, sometimes explicitly understood and described, often less so.

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More than magic

Feeling systems: At its best, systems leadership seems to exhibit an almost magical sense of the possible. Where people are locked in apparently intractable complexity, systems leadership seems to open up a new way through the mess.

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Seeing into systems

A constant sense of uncertainty accompanies systems leaders. Even at the peak of their careers they are driven by a constant curiosity about how things function as they do.

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From linear solutions to systems change

Encouraging systems change: As we face into some of the greatest problems of our times a new mantra emerges, the mantra of ‘systems change’. Why? The major challenges facing our world cannot be solved for everyone everywhere through discrete solutions.

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Living Systems Leadership

Integral to how we work at 4SD Foundation is the practice of Living Systems Leadership. The living systems in which we live, work and play encompass everything in our environment, from the food we buy to the impact our work has on the communities in which we live. Our living systems are constantly changing, evolving, susceptible to shocks, stresses and crises. Some elements are within our control but many are not.

Living Systems Leadership offers a holistic way for those involved in sustainable development to work together when navigating complexity and negotiating contested issues. It helps groups to work for transformational change through including all groups of people as partners, acknowledging power asymmetries and encouraging exploration of embracing perspectives.

Such an approach is helpful when addressing the consequences of issues like COVID outbreaks, widening conflicts, accelerating climate change and damage to nature for the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

5 Principles of Living Systems Leadership

  1. Work with complexity
  2. Value diversity
  3. Nurture adaptative networks
  4. Embrace new coalitions and alliances
  5. Prepare for emergence of new paradigms

Living Systems Leadership helps development practitioners accept that working within political processes is messy. Embracing the reality of this by practicing Living Systems Leadership can have great benefits for individuals and organisations, this can include:

  • Individuals acquire fresh mindsets and approaches that help create the conditions for large scale change.
  • Teams become more cohesive and confident in working together to address challenges.
  • Organisations develop an enduring capacity for adaptation through improving their access to useful information from external sources and better internal processes for rapidly assimilating and deploying that insight.
  • Organisations are better able to contribute coherent approaches for systems transformation alongside a wide range of other stakeholders.

Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development

Taking action on complex challenges such as the implementation of the 2030 Agenda requires a departure from traditional top-down, hierarchical and linear approaches. A report, co-authored by Lisa Dreier, David Nabarro and Jane Nelson suggests using innovative and adaptive approaches to engage broad networks of diverse stakeholders.

Download the Executive Summary (PDF)
Download the full report (PDF)

Journal Article

Atkinson, J., Lasbennes, F., & Nabarro, D. (2021). Reflecting on Our Times: Valuing Transformative Leadership in Real-World “Living Systems.” American Journal of Evaluation, 42(1), 130–138.


We present this brief reflection on key aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the implications of the worldwide focus on achieving the sustainable development goals as external observers of the evaluation endeavor around the world. We have conducted and participated in evaluations, but it is not our primary field of work and we are not engaged in the global community of evaluation specialists. However, we believe that the urgency of the challenges confronting the world today should inspire those influencing and shaping evaluation internationally to focus much more fiercely on the value of evaluation and its implications for leadership at all levels and in all fields of work. We propose that evaluation as practice should support and help inspire, value, and evaluate the type of leadership that the world needs now—dynamic and purposeful “living systems” leaders working toward large-scale, drastic change.


The living systems approach is an exciting and evolving concept that holds great promise for creating a more sustainable and equitable future for all. As we continue to develop the living systems approach, it is important to appreciate its rich history and the many contributions of scientists, researchers, and thinkers who have helped to shape our understanding of living systems.

Living systems has origins in biology and its evolution into a more holistic, integrated approach has helped to expand our understanding of the complex and dynamic interactions that shape our world.

This map by Brian Castellani & Lasse Gerrits gives an insight into the academic history of complexity sciences.

We are very proud to work alongside John Atkinson of, who has over 25 years in working with companies, guiding people through major change, appreciating living systems and helping people to make new sense of situations and challenges to find solutions that work.

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