Systems Leaders: We See You

by Rachel Sinha and Tatiana Fraser

Reflections from the first In the Thick of It- a program for systems leaders at least two years into their work.

  • How do I convince the people around me that the work we’re doing is valuable, when the results will take years to emerge?

  • Is it easier to move a system from the inside or from the margins?

  • How do I explain what a systemic approach adds, over and above what we had before?

  • How do we keep on building the public intolerance of the status quo?

  • Am I doing enough? How can I speed this up?

  • Who is interested in funding systems change programs right now?

  • How do I create closure and let go of an initiative I have lead and cared about for many years?

  • How do I do this work without getting completely overwhelmed?

In the Thick of it was launched in March 2018, the first program from our new platform The Systems Sanctuary, a peer learning platform for systems leaders designed and facilitated by Tatiana Fraser (Meta Lab) and Rachel Sinha (The Systems Studio). Our goals were to connect systems leaders internationally, create community and collectively emerge new insights about systems change practice.

Twenty participants joined us for the inaugural group from countries including Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Ethiopia and New Zealand. We met virtually by video conference once per month, in groups of five to six people. We used peer learning methods to identify strategic challenges, surface the collective wisdom of the group, and gather emergent themes through direct inquiry and exchange. The program ran for seven months, concluding in August 2018.

We See You - the publication

We wanted to mark the conclusion of our first group with a summary of some of the most interesting patterns and insights that emerged from our discussions. We recorded and transcribed all of our Cohort sessions as we went along, noting patterns, pulling out pertinent quotes, reflections and insights. We organized all of this learning into themes, culminating in a new publication We See You.

This reflective article is designed to be an offering to the participants themselves, who took a leap of faith in us and brought an openness and good natured curiosity that we could not have predicted. We also offer this to the wider field of systems change practice.

In summer 2018, we attended a retreat on Wasan Island, Canada, convened by McConnell Foundation and The School for Systems Change, designed to connect the field builders for systems change. One of the clear calls that emerged from that gathering was the need to illuminate in more detail the work, the struggles and the successes of systems leaders, who represent a beacon of hope for addressing our many interconnected challenges at this point in history. We hope this document will contribute to this body of work and provide a jumping off point for others to build upon.


In this publication we explore themes including:

  • The pressure around time that systems leaders face

  • The importance of deepening relationships in systems practice

  • Where the systems leader positions themselves to have the most impact

  • Why this work makes you humble

  • The importance of connecting with peers, rather than looking at frameworks

  • Challenges with bounding the system

  • Questions of power and transitions

  • Funding systems change

What is The Systems Sanctuary?

The Systems Sanctuary offers peer-coaching programs designed to support a growing community of pioneers experimenting with systemic solutions to systemic social and environmental problems.

Our programs include:

In the Thick of It | for systems leaders at least two years into their initiatives

The Systems Sisterhood | for women of systems change amid life transition

Embed It | for systems leaders trying to embed systems practice within their organization

Rachel Sinha