Yeah OK, I met these two a couple of years back because Berger and Johnston live just up the road from me and run leadership programmes that I have attended. Nice to read something from people who live in our part of the world. While Johnston is indeed a proper Kiwi, Berger is American. However, like Nicodemus visiting Jesus in first century Palestine, Berger came to New Zealand on sabbatical, saw the light, converted to Kiwi, and never went back. Just saying.
Anyhow, Rooted in Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development, Simple Habits for Complex Times is attuned to the kinds of complexities found in government, public sector and non-profit work. The ongoing use of family issues drawn from the nationwide department of Children and Families seems to make this clear. The illustrations appear to be more American (Berger), but there is a Kiwi feel to the book that is unmistakable as it emphasises a very New Zealand specific cultural egalitarianism (Johnston).
Because New Zealand is small geographically and has a comparatively small population, our diversity socially, academically, culturally and politically make us a melting pot in which there is no way the avoid the often used acronym, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Berger and Johnston describe VUCA as a global reality, but in countries with a large populous, many of the complexities created by diversity can be ignored by staying within your tribal group, which may consist of millions of people. For example, New Zealand has a population of 4.7 million people, while the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States has 15 Million members. In parts of America, it’s possible to avoid people of difference when your club has twice as many members as a largish pacific country. However, that ability to ‘avoid’ is diminishing globally, which is why this book has become so popular. The voice of New Zealand leadership is making an appearance because we have been living with VUCA for a number of years, especially in Human Services and Non-Profit sectors of society (which includes religious organisations). Thus the ’habits of mind’ found in the book help leaders move forward in the midst of VUCA conditions; not just to survive but rather thrive in unknown and ever-changing territory by engaging with complexity rather than avoiding it. And here’s where Kiwi egalitarianism makes its subversive entrance. When the authors us phrases like, “keep it simple” and “grow your people to be bigger than your problems” and “support them in their own developmental journeys”, you know you are on a path to shared insight and shared outcomes, which are not manifestations of historic charismatic leadership models.
In fact, the book seeks to confront our historic, cultural approach to leadership personality and even the idea that non-charismatic leadership still needs to look ‘leaderly’. The book nudges leading toward tackling the more rapidly changing and complex organisational and contextual landscape. Berger and Johnston encourage us to think more about what is ‘possible’ than ‘likely’. Consequently, they articulate three primary habits of mind that individuals need to nurture to make the shift:
- Asking different questions (instead of having the answers),
- Taking multiple perspectives (even when we disagree), and
- Seeing systems (including emergence).
I thought the first two were somewhat self-evident, but then I live in the context from which Johnston, particularly, lives and writes. However, the third grabbed my attention: ‘Seeing the systems’ moves me away from tales of cause and effect.
One key mistake we make is to fill in the connection between cause and effect with very little data. We dislike knowing about an effect without a sense of cause—it offends our sense of story. So we take whatever data we have and create a causal story. It doesn’t matter that the story is missing pieces—as long as we can tie the pieces together (and our brains will fill in the missing bits), we’ll be able to make a satisfying story we can believe in.
This of course shapes the way leaders see the past in order to make a way in to the future. The problem is, the story we create may emphasise the wrong parts of the story in order to create an outcome that we want, not one that is required. Hence, searching for the missing pieces of the story may be more crucial, but not necessarily convenient. However, such wilful ignorance scuttles our ability to lead coherently in a VUCA context. That little piece of information I found rather challenging as I do it frequently – tell the story of the past in such a way that it justifies (of at least makes sense of) what is ahead. Connect that behaviour with ‘retrospective coherence’ (we look back at something and can suddenly make sense of it all) and there’s a problem. Retrospective coherence encourages an arrogance as we ask why the previous generation of leaders couldn’t see what is so plainly obvious to us in retrospect; how did they miss it so badly? In doing so we avoid the VUCA reality in our midst. Somehow, by seeing the problems of the past with such perceived clarity, we become trustworthy prophets of an equally uncertain, complex and ambiguous future – our personal leadership feels in control.
As an antithesis to ‘cause and effect’ storytelling and the inherent abuses of retrospective coherence, the authors use David Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which he describes in the Cognitive Edge. 
This involves sorting unpredictable and predictable elements into the complex, the complicated, the chaotic and the simple. The whole point is to understand our ‘present’ reality from different perspectives so that our action comes from a much clearer perspective about ‘what is’. Hence the development of the ‘feedback mindset’. This is where egalitarian thinking appears on the scene; we challenge the assumption that the giver of feedback is the sole possessor of the truth, especially a leader. By shift to questions about ‘what can we learn’ in any given situation we enhance our capacity for listening and seeing more data and often a very different picture. Unfortunately, listening is not a strong point in leadership training – and by listening, I mean, hearing and understanding and absorbing and rethinking.
There is a bit missing from all this though. Most churches and organisations expect their CEO, Pastor or Key Leader to be people who know, “You’re the boss, you decide”, in part because there is a desire to deflect blame. So, though the book provides a new model of leadership, for many leaders there is a long transition to changing expectations around decision making processes. Though it is partially addressed in chapter 8, shared consideration tends to require shared accountability, but transitioning to that kind of culture is not well covered in the book.
 Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), Kindle Edition 13
 Ibid. 37
 Ibid. 43
 Ibid. 59ff
 Ibid. 217f