John Atkinson

Independent Adviser on Systems Leadership and Transformational Change

John Atkinson is a designer, architect, mentor and catalyst for whole system transformation. He has instigated and led projects around the world in public and corporate settings that helped people generate fundamental change in their work and lives. He has been at the forefront of developing understanding of working with human organisations as living systems for over 25 years.

John has played a key role in several recent UN processes. As advisor to the Secretary-General’s special facilitator for Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) and to the United Nations Environment Programme he helped shape approaches that made a fundamental and significant impact on people’s relationship with nature. This included the design and
delivery of the NBS Momentum Day as part of the Climate Action Summit at the UN General Assembly 2019.

His work with 4SD (a Swiss-based social enterprise) involves working directly with Dr David Nabarro, Special Envoy for Covid-19 to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation. Here he has helped develop narratives and approaches to change, that David has deployed with governments, organisations and national media in this highly sensitive and political work.

John is also directly involved in shaping the engagement process for the UN Food Systems Summit. In particular, this includes the design and delivery of a global series of dialogues for every member state and at international gatherings as well as with cities, and global organisations. Currently 119 countries are actively engaged in the process.

As systems change mentor at 4SD, John has designed and co-delivers immersions in living systems leadership. These have included in-depth reflections on the nature of living systems, the weaving of ‘sustainability, systems and self’ and purpose-designed explorations for particular organisations, both public and private. These serve to explore and develop a capacity for people to think systemically about complex issues and to build networks to continue to support and develop this way of working.

John’s background in living systems leadership as a means of growing organisational change has also involved working with multi-national corporations. Typically, this includes developing adaptive strategy for the organisation that is resilient in the face of changes in the operating environment. Recent commercial clients cover the technology, financial services, pharmaceutical, retail and manufacturing sectors. This multi-national element to
his work provides new and unique insight into how large human systems work. The crossover between large commercial organisations and the public sector adds value to both fields.

Together with Emma Loftus and John Jarvis, he curated The Art of Change Making. This book is set reading for university leadership programmes and is available in online interactive form. He curates the online resource ‘’ described as ‘the best online resource for systems change’ and ‘a constant source of quality thinking and insight’. The explorations into systems leadership shared in this forum are shaping how the topic is now viewed, both pragmatically and academically.

He has designed and led a wide range of systems leadership interventions at global, national and local level. In all this covers direct involvement in well over 100 different places across a wide range of complex societal issues. This has meant working with senior national and local politicians and chief executive officers and also with frontline staff and local populations.

John has worked with a number of the world’s leading thinkers on whole system leadership including Margaret Wheatley, Peter Block, Myron Rogers, Adam Kahane and Dick Axelrod. His writing is regularly published in the national, local and specialist media. Appointments have included Managing Director of the Leadership Centre for Local Government, Director in KPMG’s local government practice, Principal at The Phillips Kay Partnership Ltd and Officer Commanding the Royal Artillery Leadership Wing. He was a commissioner on the Warwick Commission on elected mayors and has spoken on systems leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. John served as the Vice-chair then senior independent director for England’s national mountain centre and competed to international standard in the sport of kayak slalom.