Purpose – This paper aims to be a theoretical examination of the role of individuals in sponsoring and facilitating effective, systemic change in organisations. Using reports of a number of high-profile initiatives to improve patient safety, it seeks to analyse the role of individual health care professionals in developing and facilitating new systems of care that improve safety and quality. Design/methodology/approach – The paper uses recent work in sociology that is concerned with the phenomenon of “sociological citizenship”. The authors test whether successful initiators of change in health care can be described as sociological citizens. This notion of sociological citizens is applied to a number of highly successful initiatives to improve safety and quality to extrapolate the factors associated with individual clinician leadership, which may have affected the success of such endeavours. Findings – In each of the examples analysed the initiators of change can be characterised as sociological citizens. In reviewing the roles of these charismatic individuals it is evident that they see the relational interdependence between the individuals and organisations and that they use this information to achieve both professional and organisational objectives. Research limitations/implications – The paper uses a case study method to investigate the usefulness of the role of sociological citizenship in interventions that aim to improve patient safety. The paper reviews the key concepts and uses of the concept of sociological citizenship to produce a framework against which the case studies were assessed. Practical implications – The authors suggest that a goal of policy for improving patient safety should be directed to the problem of how hospitals and health care organisations can create the conditions for encouraging the individual diligence and care that is needed to support reliable, safe health care practices. Social implications – Improving the safety and quality of health care is an important public health initiative. It has also proven to be difficult to achieve sustained reductions in the harm caused by the occurrence of adverse events in health care. The process of linking individual diligence with service outcomes may help to overcome one of the enduring struggles of health care systems around the world: the policy-practice divide. Originality/value – The paper directs attention towards the role of sociological citizenship in health care systems and organisations.