The Power of Systems Leadership for Tackling Sustainability Challenges

To make progress on our journey to a more sustainable future, we need new leadership approaches. I believe systems leadership is part of the solution — it’s a powerful framework that allows us to tackle complex challenges in a holistic and interconnected manner. Systems leadership acknowledges the interconnected nature of systems and engages stakeholders across sectors to foster collaboration to achieve meaningful progress. One of the first steps in effective systems leadership is systems mapping.


Systems mapping helps us to make sense of complex sustainability challenges by visualising the various system elements and their relationships, identifying the root causes of problems and potential leverage points for change. Here are some steps to begin the process of systems mapping:

  1. Define the system: Establish clear boundaries and identify the interconnected elements of the system under scrutiny. For example, a city’s transportation system.
  2. Identify and engage stakeholders: Recognise the stakeholders involved in the system, such as government agencies, businesses, and citizens. Involving stakeholders in the process can help to build ownership of both the problem and its solutions. Engaging stakeholders might involve holding workshops, conducting interviews, or using online collaboration tools.
  3. Map the elements: Create a diagram illustrating the different components of the system. For instance, for a city’s transportation system, include roads, public transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian walkways.
  4. Identify relationships: Highlight the relationships between the system elements. This includes cause-and-effect relationships, feedback loops, and other connections between stakeholders.
  5. Identify leverage points: Once the system and its relationships are clear, identify potential leverage points for change and who needs to be involved. For example, reducing car traffic in a city may involve incentivising public transport, expanding bike lane infrastructure, or implementing congestion pricing.


When it comes to mapping the elements there are three tools we recommend starting with: cluster, actor, and ecosystem.

1. Cluster Map

Cluster mapping involves putting a topic in the middle of a page and then brainstorming ideas around the topic. For example, with the topic of waste reduction, ideas might include types of and sources of waste, recycling facilities, and waste reduction ideas.

Next cluster the ideas and draw relationships between them. Potential solutions will emerge. Back to the example of reducing waste in a city, a solution that may pop out of the cluster map could be implementing a plastic bag ban in the short term and developing a more comprehensive waste reduction plan in the long term.

2. Actor Map

An actor map can help you to better understand current stakeholders or ‘actors’, the relationships between them, and their roles in the system. It can also help identify opportunities to build new relationships, as well as levers of change.

Using the example of climate action in a country, types of actors might include government agencies, local authorities, non-profit organisations, and academic organisations. Within these segments, we can identify whether specific actors are core, direct, and indirect based on their proximity to the topic of climate action.

You can go on to map engagement, relationships, and connections. Consider the implications. Where is there momentum? Where are the blockages? Where are the opportunities?

3. Ecosystem Map

Ecosystem maps are useful because they help us to understand both the dynamics within and outside an organisation.

Step 1: Plot inner and outer stakeholder relationships & dynamics

In the centre of a blank sheet of paper, draw a small circle to represent your group or organisation. To the right of the circle, plot all relevant ‘inner’ stakeholder relationships and dynamics that influence the inner organisational landscape. These might include the culture, purpose, departments, particular executives, and stress levels of employees. On the left side of the circle, plot all relevant ‘outer’ stakeholder relationships and dynamics that influence how the organisation engages with its outer world. These might include customers, suppliers, natural resources, investors, partners, and competitors.

Step 2: Draw connections

Then map out the relationships and dependencies between the elements. Use different colours to represent the vitality of relationships.

Step 3: Reflect

Reflect on the map. Ask: Where can we unlock tensions or potential? Identify key people, stakeholders and action points.

Adapted from Regenerative Leadership by Hutchins & Storm

For example, an organisation that wants to act on climate change might identify inner dynamics including a culture of innovation, a shared sense of purpose around sustainability, and high levels of stress due to a fast-paced work environment. The outer stakeholder dynamics could include dependencies on suppliers for sustainable materials and energy, relationships with customers who demand sustainable products, and regulatory pressures to reduce emissions.

By mapping out these relationships and dependencies, the organisation can gain a better understanding of its role in the larger ecosystem and identify opportunities for improvement. The organisation may realise, for example, that it needs to work more closely with its suppliers to ensure sustainable sourcing practices, or that it needs to invest in employee well-being to reduce stress levels and foster a culture of sustainability.


Systems leadership is a powerful tool in tackling sustainability challenges. No single organisation can tackle these challenges alone. Systems mapping is a key tool which allows us to see the elements of the system, their relationships and connections, and identify potential leverage points for change. Systems leadership is then about engaging key stakeholders, forming collaborations, and delivering collective impact. By bringing together policy makers, businesses, communities, and citizens, systems leaders can drive meaningful progress towards a sustainable future.