Creating systems of leadership in prevention research

Spiral made out of smaller squares, circles and other shapes.

Dr Melanie Pescud

The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre’s systems case studies project explores how researcher leadership practices can boost the positive influence of research into chronic disease prevention. Dr Melanie Pescud investigates the systems leadership qualities needed to make a difference.


What makes a good systems leader? In The Dawn of System Leadership, Senge et al describe genuine system leaders as people whose profound commitment to the health of the whole also nurtures similar commitment in others.

“Their ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish,” Senge et al write.

“They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.” 

When considering systems thinking and systems leadership in various settings such as academia and government, it’s worth exploring these comments.

Consider that they need not all belong to a single person. They are perhaps better thought of as qualities that should be distributed throughout teams; in doing so creating a ‘system of leadership’ as opposed to a single, ‘heroic’ systems thinking leader.


Let’s start with commitment to the health of the whole. This refers to the ability to step away from the details and work towards building a better bigger picture. It requires the ability to focus less on a ‘me, mine, and I’ orientation to an ‘us and we’ focus, thus representing an allocentric rather than egocentric worldview.

A key aspect in helping to foster a commitment to the health of the whole is understanding the role you play within the system you seek to influence. It’s important to ask yourself what field of study or change you are committed to, and how what you are doing is contributing to the whole.

Creating a shared understanding of the answers to these questions is an important goal for working towards health for the whole system. One of the ways this can be fostered is through the practice of deep listening.


Deep listening is the ability to listen with receptivity to what is shared, regardless of whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral information, or whether it aligns with your worldview or experiences. It exists on four levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and system.

Intrapersonal deep listening can be tricky as it’s fair to suggest that we as humans aren’t always great at listening to our bodies, hearts, or minds, and, even when we do, we may not respond with wisdom or kindness. Yet, our ability to listen to others with curiosity and compassion can be intensified through the practice of listening to ourselves and responding with care.

When working within groups, it can be beneficial to reflect upon who you choose to listen to as much as who you choose not to listen to – and why this is the case. What might you be missing by filtering information shared within a meeting? Is this not potentially useful data?

When it comes to the broader system level, you could notice the extent to which you understand the system(s) in which you live. Do you notice what messages are coming from the system? What do you pay attention to? What do you filter out?

The Aboriginal Peoples of the Daly River region in the Northern Territory have a word that expands beyond the concept of deep listening; Dadirri (da-did-ee) – it refers to an inner listening and quiet still awareness, and is from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages. We could certainly do with an ongoing practice of deep listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, thus opening our hearts and minds to a diversity of wise perspectives.


As systems leaders or those seeking to create systems of leaders, we need to begin to see reality through the eyes of people very different from ourselves. We need to learn to see, understand, and value the incorporation of multiple perspectives into our work.

We need to think deeply about what this means within different contexts. Time and again we fail to ensure our teams are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Look at your executive, your teams, your committees and your institution’s hiring choices, and notice who is there and why they have been chosen.


Finally, leaders and teams need to place an emphasis on having an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth. Cultivating a beginner’s mind is crucial here, and especially useful for experts who can sometimes become tunnel-visioned in their views.

When was the last time you were curious about a problem and solution and paid attention to those thinking or experiencing the world differently to you? What did you learn? Did you learn?

Sometimes a lack of intellectual humility can be to blame in the case of non-learning. Intellectual humility involves the ability to own our cognitive limitations and an awareness of our intellectual debts to others. It fosters a learning orientation and a recognition of our human tendency to make mistakes. But, instead of seeing these as problems, they are seen as opportunities for growth, learning, and reflection.

As individuals and teams, it could be beneficial to ponder on these qualities and notice some of the strengths within your research team, and consider where there are areas within yourself or your team you could improve, or learn more about.


Dr Melanie Pescud is currently a senior research fellow at the School of Allied Health at the University of Western Australia. From 2019-2022 she was senior research fellow with the Australian National University and The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre while co-leading a project exploring systems case studies.


Further reading

Leadership for systems change: Researcher practices for enhancing research impact in the prevention of chronic disease, by Dr Melanie Pescud et al.



Image courtesy of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre

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