When talking to leaders I often attempt to have them identify what fills and drains them. What energizes them to lead another day and what causes them to want to write a resignation letter? As I read Garvey Berger and Johnston’s, Simple Habits for Complex Times I was able to articulate one of my own drains that I had misunderstood previously. I love to develop creative and effective systems and cultures for people and organizations to flourish and had a negative disposition toward complexity as I assumed that it was the antithesis to simple. While reading this book I discovered I experience a serious spike in blood pressure when the corporate culture is complicated and discouraging to people who are trying to engage, when systems are more about efficiency and protection than serving and changing for the sake of the user. Simple Habits for Complex Times identifies the difference between complexity and complicated and the two have divergent interpretations in a manner I had not recognized.
Garvey Berger and Johnston, as leadership consultants working with many organizations, recognized that complexity theory could actually be used to open the door for creativity. Their approach is to help leaders think, engage and act differently through new habits of mind, and to recognize that a both/and perspective is necessary because the world is predictable and unpredictable at the same time. They show how leadership books and training of the past have prepared leaders for a world that no longer exists. As I read through their process of asking a new set of questions, recognizing how systems are interrelated, drawing boundaries for fail-safe experiments, all while helping people embrace change, I found myself coming alive, highlighting way too many sections in the book, and nodding my head incessantly. I found my internal tank filling! There were answers to questions I have been asking, articulation of things I intuitively had been sensing but unable to describe, possibilities and creativity that gave me hope. And, if I am honest, it brought strong correction to areas I am failing in leadership for these times. My solace is I have been “unconsciously incompetent,” I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The authors’ use of neuroscience experts, change coaches, adaptive leadership gurus, thinkers in social science, psychology and more, provides a well-researched, dependable guidebook for leaders who want to live and lead “filled” through these days of “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.”
We must recognize that our brains and bodies were created for flight or fight to protect us. They are not wired to stand in the face of danger and uncertainty and ask creative questions and look for innovative possibilities. Our brains look for the easy way which is different than simple habits and this work to ease us can cause us to miss the big picture. It is somewhat like understanding the significant difference between relief and peace. We can take action that brings immediate relief to a situation without going to the core for deep resolve, peace. This is also what leads to technical change that typically does not last rather than adaptive change as Hefeitz describes, “The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.”
The conditions of leadership have changed, the world is complex and no longer can a cause-effect model be trusted. Cause-effect is another “easy” pathway for identifying problems and bringing solutions to bear. The authors of Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice describe this as “another human tendency” that impedes progress.
Complicated systems drain the life out of me for sure, but the ability to start with a fresh slate, ask new questions, get a broader perspective, listen to learn, look for new possibilities and remake the system into something new and vibrant? That fills the tank!
 Jennifer Garvey Berger & Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 207.
 Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009), Kindle Loc. 1264.
 Nitin Nohria & Rakesh Khurana eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2010), 113.