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Systems leadership in peacebuilding

Expert Workshop on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace in Africa, November 2019
The Challenges Forum Expert Workshop on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace in Africa, November 2019. Photo: Challenges Forum

Ahead of the 2021 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.

Today’s global context—characterized by complexity, polarization and growing inequalities, compounded by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—risks undoing decades’ worth of peace and development dividends. We are likely to see more conflicts and higher demands on peace operations in the coming years.

This is a key moment for the United Nations peace and security pillar to demonstrate its ability to address peacebuilding needs coherently and in synergy with the often wide range of partners involved, including development actors and international financial institutions.

Building coherence in a complex UN system

The recent 2020 Challenges Annual Forum highlighted the fact that UN peace operations need to more comprehensively deliver on efforts to build and sustain peace. This will require a shift in mindset at the leadership level, building stronger cohesion between partners and supporting synergies throughout the UN system, including special political missions and UN country teams.

Similarly, the vision of the UN peace and security pillar and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) 2020–2022 Strategic Plan promote stronger cooperation from the international level down to the subregional and local levels, including resident coordinators and UN country teams. They also admit to the importance of politics in building sustainable peace, as well as a working culture of innovation and constant learning.

What is systems leadership?

Systems leadership is a behavioural approach widely used in the private sector and other complex environments, which is also gaining momentum in the UN. It involves building and mobilizing alliances of diverse stakeholders around a shared vision for systemic change by empowering widespread collaboration, innovative action and mutual accountability for progress to shift systems towards sustainability.

Systems leadership signifies a departure from the traditional and hierarchical approaches to leadership and the implementation of change. Instead, as explained by Lisa Dreier, David Nabarro and Jane Nelson, systems leadership is a set of skills and capacities that enable change in complex systems where no one entity is in control. By letting the participants embark on a journey of collective commitment, engagement, accountability, learning and revision, systemic change can be achieved through a more pragmatic and whole-system approach to reform.

Cedric de Coning examines adaptive peace operations that engage in an iterative process of inductive learning and adaptation together with communities and people affected by conflict, further highlighting the need for pragmatism and flexibility.

Traditional and linear approaches to reform consist of the identification of a problem, the decision on a course of action, and an expectation that the problem will be solved. A systems approach acknowledges that there may be no predetermined solution to complex, systems-level problems. In this way, the world is not seen as discrete parts but as cloud-like systems of relationships.

Changing mindsets and behaviour

The increased attention to relationships within systems thinking may be a great contribution to the field of peacebuilding. Indeed, relationships can be seen as the basis of conflict as well as its long-term solution.

Relatedly, peacebuilding reforms rarely occur in settings isolated from conflict dynamics. Rather, they occur in connection to political, administrative or legal conflict, often after or in between violent confrontations. This means that rulebooks and predetermined formulas are not sufficient when dealing with complex systems. Every such system is context-specific.

Undoubtedly, the consideration of linear concepts such as lessons learned and best practice can guide conduct in many ways. However, deploying a team that has been successful in one system context into another will not necessarily lead to equal success.

A recent internal review of UN integration found a number of obstacles to effective integration and proposed a change of mindset based on behavioural solutions. Integration has been easiest where individuals have cross-pillar experience and has been most effective when they have focused on a pragmatic approach. Systemic change must aim to shift the mindsets and behaviour of stakeholders, bringing them out of their long-standing silos to cooperate towards a shared goal.

The language of integration has been present for a long time without meaningful results; the issue is how to operationalize it now. The systems leadership approach indicates the need for deep analysis and collective commitment instead of simplifying systems that are inherently complex.

Finding the right lens

Reform efforts are often treated as linear, clockwork-like processes, when in reality they are characterized by emotions, failures and adaptations with no predetermined end-point. Peace operations deal with contexts that are often fiendishly complex.

As Robert Ricigliano explains, a systems response comes down to setting the right ‘level of zoom’. Analysing a problem from both too close up and too far away will leave crucial details or larger observations out of the analysis.

In settings of peace operations and special political missions, finding the right level of zoom is inherently difficult. One could argue that no level of leadership has all-encompassing knowledge of the entire system. Only though meaningful cooperation can system-wide analyses be made, to pinpoint the right course of action. Could, then, empowered UN resident coordinators better support synergies and coherence of peacebuilding activities and ensure stronger linkages between programmatic activities and political objectives?

Systems leadership in peacebuilding and special political missions

The concept of systems leadership has previously been applied in the private sector, in rule of law and in the field of development. Could it also be effectively applied in the field of peacebuilding? 

Building on the notion of the primacy of politics, greater political coherence between member states in their approach to peacebuilding is key. Given their political focus and inclusive nature, special political missions may be a suitable place to continue the shift towards more systems leadership initiatives within the UN.

How, then, could systems leadership, as a tool for behavioural change, support special political missions in operationalizing synergies and coherence with wider peacebuilding efforts, including UN country teams and international financial institutions? Further, how concretely could the Peacebuilding Commission serve as a platform for more coherence and coordination, including with the Security Council?

Challenges Forum’s virtual roundtable event at the 2021 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development seeks to answer these questions and explore whether systems leadership, as a tool for behavioural change, can indeed support peacebuilding efforts on the ground.

The Challenges Forum session ‘Systems leadership in peacebuilding’ takes place on Thursday 6 May at 14:00 CEST. If you are interested in joining the roundtable, please contact:

You can register for the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development here


David Creelman is Associate Officer at the Challenges Forum International Secretariat. Prior to studying peace and conflict at Uppsala University, David worked for the Swedish Armed Forces and was deployed once in Afghanistan and twice as a peacekeeper in Mali.