Systems leadership antidote to a ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous’ world

By Melissa Coade

July 27, 2021

Academics and former officials pin hopes on diplomatic communications remaining open.  (Olga K/Adobe)

Former mandarin Lin Hatfield Dodds explains what mix of technical and adaptive leadership organisations need to rise to meet modern challenges.

Hatfield Dodds has taken the helm of the Benevolent Society as its CEO. A long time career public servant and registered psychologist, her professional path has been as diverse as it is interesting. 

According to Hatfield Dodds, the public and for purpose sectors have been forced to shift their perspectives on leadership to make an impact in a transforming world. Where the pace of change is becoming faster, and operating conditions are uncertain, strong technical leadership alone will not cut it, she says. 

“In an uncertain, ambiguous, volatile environment, where things are shifting all the time, you need adaptive or systems leadership, as well as technical leadership.

“Using a camping analogy, that’s knowing who you are, why you want to go in the direction you are going, why you are going this weekend, and planning who you do it with,” Hatfield Dodds says. 

Systems leadership puts a lot of store in understanding the broader context. Hatfield Dodds says the evidence of this shift in the public sector is more CEOs coming to the realisation that they cannot rely on their own organisational capability alone to be effective — the need to expand the groups they choose to collaborate and cooperate with. 

Hatfield Dodds says this acknowledgement is leading to more opportunities for cross sector participation to tackle big social issues such the barriers to better education and wellbeing outcomes for Australian children.

“Systems leadership, at its core, is really about being aware of the context and the ecosystem, and then being prepared to bring a bit of humility and empathy to the table and work with others.

“I’m always perplexed when people want to build their own empires. I think the challenge is, within sectors, working together. And then the real big challenge is ‘how do you work across sectors?’,” Hatfield Dodds adds.

From 2016 to 2019 Hatfield Dodds served as a Deputy Secretary, Social Policy within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In that role, she led government advice on social policy and gender equality issues to the prime minister of the day. She also led the COAG team for a number of years.

Hatfield Dodds is currently turning her mind to finding ways to bring together those people inside government and the for purpose sector who understand the need for effective and trusting systems leadership.

“In a complex, fast moving world, how do we bring those people together so they can practice leading together in an environment that’s really characterised by trust?” Hatfield Dodds asks.

“Over time, I’d like to bring leaders from the private sector in as well. I think leaders in each of those three sectors (public sector, the NGO or for purpose sector, and the private sector) are formed in particular ways, and sit and have particular perspectives, that are all necessary if we are really going to solve some of the challenges we face as a country.” 

Speaking to The Mandarin about her latest career transition, from associate dean at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) to leading one of Australia’s oldest charities, Hatfield Dodds says it is all part of a natural evolution. 

In her early 20s Hatfield Dodds accepted her first full time position working for the then newly formed ACT government as a graduate, moved on to work for ACT Health for another five years and transitioned into the NGO sector. The pattern has been a hallmark of her professional path.

“The reason I went into the ACT government was I wanted to understand public policy because at that point I was intending to spend my life working as a psychologist,” Hatfield Dodds says.

“And then when I had kids, I could work as a psychologist part time and manage it that way.”

The plan was to get a bit of life experience and background in public policy before launching her career as a psychologist — and Hatfield Dodds found her psychology work tremendously rewarding. In her 30s, she was operating from her own practice in Canberra, working mostly with children and families, and primarily helping victims of sexual abuse. 

“You work very intensively with people, one-on-one or family by family, and you see the same patterns show up again and again. 

“I could just see the systems that sit around people and the systems-issues that either prevent people from moving towards wholeness or actively move them towards brokenness,” Hatfield Dodds explains.

Driven by a desire to make a systemic difference for the patients she was treating, as a fully-fledged practising psychologist Hatfield Dodds chose to move sideways back into public policy.  

“I [was] thinking, well, I can see this many people and journey with this many people as a therapist over the course of my life.

“But if I step sideways and go back into public policy, knowing what I now know in my bones about what it is like to to be living in dire poverty, to be vulnerable multiple ways, to be sexual abuse survivor, whatever it is — I can bring that understanding of the public policy world and be able to shift the dial or be part of shifting the dial with lots of other people, for many more Australians,” she says. 

“I started to get a fire in my belly.”

At the height of her NGO career, Hatfield Dodds led Australia’s largest NGO network of social, health and aged care services, UnitingCare Australia, as its national director. From there, she stepped into her deputy secretary role with PM&C.

“Coming out of 15 years in the NGO world, where people are very operationally focused and very good at running NGO businesses and delivering services, I stepped into a world that was entirely policy entirely focused on the political class,” Hatfield Dodds says.

“It was a really lively, interesting place to be.”

When Hatfield Dodds left her job at PM&C to join the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), she was drawn again to a big-picture vision. This time it was a long-term goal of establishing something equivalent to ANZSOG for the NGO sector. 

While the disruption of COVID-19 may have put paid to achieving some of Hatfield Dodd’s vision of an Australian and New Zealand school for NGOs, she thinks some promising seeds have been planted for the future. 

In July Hatfield Dodds started a new chapter at the helm of the Benevolent Society, where she hopes to pursue more cross-sector projects to tackle the big social issues. 

“The Benevolent Society has a fantastic history of doing service delivery and supports on the ground but they also have just as much organisational focus on being engaged in public policy debates in Australia,” Hatfield Dodds says. 

“I’m really excited about it.”


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