This article discusses how leadership training can contribute to systemic change in public administration. It discusses the nature of leadership development designed to accelerate systemic change in public leadership and to enhance capabilities for dealing with complex societal issues. It underlines the interconnectedness of public policy domains and proposes seeing the administrative system as a living and open system of activities. This article presents a case example of a long-term leadership training program in Finland, implemented during 2016-2018.

November, 09 2020   |   Petri Virtanen & Marika Tammeaid

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’”


The Times They Are a-Changin’, a song written by Bob Dylan, was released as the title track of his 1964 album by the same name. Dylan’s track trumpeted—and still does—the idea of continuous change and it encapsulates also the current challenges of public sector leadership.

A genuinely relevant question is why we need change and particularly systemic change. We need systemic change because our societies have become increasingly complex and the idea of governing them in the traditional sense faces severe limitations. Intertwined societal phenomena and the growing number of issues in government agendas do not easily fall into the existing traditional categories of public policies and institutions. This is a pervasive challenge for public sector institutions leaning principally on ensuring legislative compliance or paying attention mainly to increasing the efficiency of their own agency.

Ability to tackle citizens’ needs and public policy implementation in a more comprehensive and systemic manner within the public sector requires another “flying level” in understanding societal challenges and looking at them across existing public policy domains and organizational silos. It is noteworthy that even if the complexity of issues has not really increased—e.g. poverty is not more complex or easy to solve than it ever was—the need for systemic change is still there. This is because of speedy digital communication scenery, rising expectations by citizens and policymakers and the narrow repertory of current policy choices.

The need for systemic change brings about new ways to understand, see and conceive the role of the public sector and public sector leaders. The mindset and capability of public leaders play a key role in enabling this change towards adaptive, human-centered and mission-oriented public functions. The required changes in the identity traits of public leaders can be described as follows: 1) from public sector management to public sector design thinking, 2) from machine-centered organizational control to human-centered organizational leadership, 3) from experts occupying leaders’ roles to generic leadership behavior and skills and 4) from paternalistic authority to a service mentality (these trait changes are discussed in detail in Virtanen and Tammeaid, 2020). These changes require understanding that the main future competencies of public sector leaders consist of cross-functional experience and cooperation within government and between different levels of governance as well as built-in cooperation dynamics between public, private and non-governmental sectors.


Leadership training designed for learning

Developing the mindset and behavior requires deep learning and is never a quick fix (Witherspoon, 2013). It is a holistic challenge concerning all sectors, all branches of government and institutions providing public service training.

In leadership training, both participants and trainers need to challenge their beliefs of what knowledge building and renewal are in order not to fall into the knowledge-action gap (Darnell et al., 2019). Long-term training provides an ideal platform for learning. This is specifically the case if it is designed in such a way that it develops the ability to think and seek solutions together. When the training is not delivered from an expert position, but as constructivist open-ended dialogue with and between the participants, it also creates a great opportunity to practice new sensemaking, by experimenting and building new ecosystems. That type of training enables the capacity to initiate and accelerate systemic change within the public sector.

In Finland, during 2017-2018 we had the opportunity to design and conduct six long-term training courses involving around 140 senior government leaders. This leadership training was orchestrated by training participants in mixed groups and in a social constructivist manner to focus on capacity for renewal in central government as a systemic whole. That involved leading public policy as a network of organizations working for the same long-term goals as well as fostering a culture of enabling leadership. In practice this meant internal change goals like intensified cross-administrative phenomenon-based cooperation and human-centered and strengths-based leadership. The external change goals highlighted a phenomena-based public policy approach and putting citizens at the center of strategic design and decision making.

Inductive Solutions Focused learning-design building a change platform by collective and tentative facilitation language (Kim Berg and Szabo, 2005) was the key element in building individual and collective agency for change. It made apparent that the future is negotiable also in the public service and depends a lot on the frame leaders and civil servants choose and the actions they take. Action learning orientation was emphasized also by including real-setting experiments in the training program. Real-setting experiments were a great way to accelerate learning by small wins activating thinking, learning and experimentation with re-framed values and inference (Termeer and Dewulf, 2018).


What Came Out of the Training Process?

One of the outstanding results of the Route for Renewal© program [1] was that around 137 practical experiments were started and conducted by the top executives during the period of 18 months. That is a powerful way to make systemic change on both operational and cultural levels. Many small creeks flowing in the same direction make a much more powerful development impact than an overwhelming plan or a written final assignment—the first being typical of change projects and the latter of traditional long-term training.  

The feedback from the participants was very positive, with an average score of 5.4 on a scale ranging from 1 (poor) to 6 (excellent). Another important measure from the systemic point of view, i.e. archiving the critical mass, was also fulfilled. In all, 88 to 98 per cent of the very top civil service leaders from 12 ministries participated in the training, and the percentage of participant attendance (on average 80-90 per cent) in modules illustrated the high engagement of the participants.

These were outstanding results, but from the systemic change point of view the main interest should be in whether the training changed how the participants think about their leadership mission. That is something we sought to tackle via setting up a regular and dialogical evaluation and monitoring system accelerating individual and joint learning. The most important means for evaluation for development was a dialogical and evaluative discussion at the end of each module with the training group. Actively involving participants in constant monitoring and evaluation of their own and joint learning processes served the purpose of getting feedback early and enhancing the participant’s personal and methodological skills for self-reflection and dialogical joint reflection appreciating the multiplicity of views and experiences. One of the most important prerequisites for good cooperation is the notion that the same things are experienced differently, since our mental models influence our experiences, understanding and beliefs. Opening up to how we ourselves and others pay attention, think, create and reinforce assumptions and beliefs is essential ground for mindset change and joint sensemaking (Senge et al., 1994).


Lessons learned

In order to accelerate systemic change, it is important also to deviate from the positivistic frame some evaluation traditions may have and improve public evaluation practices for a more adaptive and anticipatory evaluation, better in tune with complex interactions and interdependencies (Lähteenmäki-Smith and Virtanen 2020).

A managerialist change view with reductionistic tendencies does not recognize the characteristics and nature of societal and human systemic change. It leaves out the organic and emerging nature of human systems. For example, we did not ask the participants to evaluate individual keynote speakers or trainers, which is typical of a mechanical way to evaluate training. Bearing in mind that impactful learning derives primarily from our capacity to challenge our own beliefs and established practices and open up to diverse views that sometimes challenge the status quo of matters we hold dear, evaluating individual parts of a training program does not make much sense. A well-designed learning process can never be reduced to individual parts either working or evaluated on their own.

In social change there is no push button that would start the desired progress everywhere and in any circumstances. Meanings are always co-created and accelerating systemic change means taking a living system approach, cultivating the dialogical conditions and non-linear thinking, working with many aspects and different stakeholders simultaneously and being interested in transformative change and openness for adaptation. It follows that looking at the effectiveness and outcomes of a developmental change of a system should be driven from the same assumptions.

On the basis of the narratives the participants associated with the preferred future features of the government working culture, real-setting experiments and observable positive effects reported by the personnel of the participants’ organizations, we can say that the Route for Renewal© training program had a noticeable effect on the leadership mindset and leadership deeds of the participants. A systemic change is a lengthy journey, and in this case the systemic change for enabling leadership was very successfully started, and it produced a lot of immediate results, co-learning and some promising long-term effects in the leadership deeds, working practices and cultural features of the organizations.


Petri Virtanen currently serves as the CEO of the Finnish Itla Children’s Foundation and as Professor of Administrative Science at the University of Vaasa. Previously he was Project Director at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, responsible for the public sector leadership program, and Professor of Administrative Science at the University of Tampere. He has also worked in the consultancy business (as CEO of Net Effect Ltd.) and as a civil servant (as a Head of Unit in the Ministry of Finance). Dr Virtanen is an Adjunct Professor at three universities (the Universities of Lapland, Tampere and Helsinki).

Marika Tammeaid is a solution-focused coach and learning designer currently working as the Director of Development at the Finnish Itla Children’s Foundation. Previously she was responsible for designing and leading the Route for Renewal public sector leadership training courses at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Marika Tammeaid (M.Soc.Sci., Clinical Supervisor) has long personal experience in leading and developing public sector organizations and public sector leadership (Ministry of Finance, State Treasury, Nordic Council of Ministers). On a continual basis, Marika Tammeaid teaches solution-focused thinking and change leadership in continuing education centers at several universities.



[1] More detailed information about the Route for Renewal© training program organized by Sitra—the Finnish Innovation Fund—and the outcomes of the training is available in Virtanen P, Tammeaid M (2020) Developing Public Sector Leadership: New Rationale, Best Practices and Tools. Springer, Cham.



Darnell C, Gulliford L, Kristjánsson K, Paris P (2019) Phronesis and the Knowledge-Action Gap in Moral Psychology and Moral Education: A New Synthesis? Human Development 62: 101–129 DOI

Kim Berg I, Szabo P. (2005) Brief Coaching for lasting Solutions. Norton, New York.

Lähteenmäki-Smith K, Virtanen P. (2020) Mission-Oriented Public Policy and the New Evaluation Culture. In Lehtimäki H, Uusikylä P, Smedlund A. (Eds.) Society as an Interaction Space: A Systemic Approach. Springer.

Senge P, Kleiner A, Roberts C, Ross RB, Smith BJ (1994) The fifth discipline fieldbook: strategies and tools for building a learning organization. Doubleday Verso, New York.

Termeer CJAM, Dewulf A (2018) A small wins framework to overcome the evaluation paradox of governing wicked problems, Policy and Society, available at DOI: 10.1080/14494035.2018.1497933, accessed on 6.8.2018.

Virtanen P, Tammeaid M (2020) Developing Public sector Leadership: New rationale, Best Practices and Tools. Springer, Cham.

Witherspoon R. (2013) Double-Loop Coaching for Leadership Development. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 50: 261-283. DOI


Key words: systemic change, public leadership, leadership development, learning design

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