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6 December 2018

What the Mountain Taught Me About Complexity Fitness

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

During hard climbing, the world shrinks to touch, pressure, kinesthetics.  The mind is not separate from these.  (from Teewinot, by Jack Turner)

Four months ago, in the company of my family, my closest childhood friend, and some amazing folks from Exum Mountain Guides, I climbed to the almost-top of the tallest and most iconic mountain in the Teton Range of Wyoming–the Grand Teton. It was an undertaking I had been contemplating since I was 18 (yes, really).  In preparing myself for the actuality of it, my primary focus was on the big picture. Having grown up in and around these mountains but never having climbed the Big One, I had visions of a life-changing spiritual experience.  I had one. I knew I would experience a range of emotions, from exhilaration to terror and everything in between.  I did. And I expected it would be physically challenging, even though I told myself that because I was in reasonably good shape and was surely clever enough to learn the technical climbing skills quickly, it would be manageable.  Let’s just say it was a bit more physically challenging than I expected!

What never even occurred to me, though, was that my ultimate destination would be not the real summit (victory at 13,775 feet with pictures to prove it!) but instead the alternate West (or what I like to call the Fake) Summit.  When I first heard about this option, a little voice in my head said—”oh, that’s the one for people who are not as clever and physically fit as I am.”  Yet the guides, who are some of the wisest people I have ever met, know that by the end of the two-day training and the first day of walking up the roughly one mile of elevation to the Lower Saddle, they will have a good sense of who will and won’t have what it takes to get to the real summit at the speed that’s required.  In my case, they thought I would be too slow, so they told me and a few others about this “great (fake) option” just before sending us off to get some sleep in our 11,200-foot-high hut the night before attempting to summit.  Still, I thought—nope, I’ll make the real summit.  And yet, I didn’t.  This was my Mountain Lesson #1—a reinforcement of a key complexity idea, in which simply being clever and working hard don’t ensure you will arrive at a pre-determined destination.

My need to re-learn Mountain Lesson #1 lead me to my Mountain Lesson #2—that we humans are not particularly fit for complexity, and if we want to create the conditions for organizations to address their most pressing complex challenges, their leaders must develop Complexity Fitness.  Simply teaching them about complexity may be interesting and useful, but it’s far from sufficient.

For many years, my colleagues and I at Cultivating Leadership have been helping prepare leaders for a complex world by teaching them about complexity, helping them to recognize it in their daily lives, and supporting them to work in ways that are more complexity-adapted. Most of our clients love the perspective shift and the new tools they get from our programs, our coaching, and our work with teams.  Some tell us they are life changing. And yet, many of these same leaders–even those with more than enough organizational power and influence to buck cultural norms – tend to quickly revert to their tried and true approaches to leadership.  And then all of us, leaders and coaches alike, wonder, what happened?

What happened is that we humans, by our nature and our nurturing, are not particularly fit for complexity.  Even when our brains have learned plenty of tools and approaches that are fit for complexity, our bodies and our identities remain fit for a predictable, controllable world. While our human tendency to predict, to know, and to be in control is extremely useful in the right conditions, they are seriously anti-helpful in the wrong ones. I’ve come to believe that the most important thing we can do to help leaders bridge the gap between knowing about complexity and actually living it is to help them build Complexity Fitness.

In the visceral experience I had on the mountain–experiencing the dissonance between knowing about complexity and actually being in it—I understood in a whole new way both the challenge and importance of cultivating Complexity Fitness. And as a bonus, I got some real-life lessons in how it works.

So, what exactly is Complexity Fitness, and how do we develop it?  Importantly, it does not mean getting physically fit in the way most people think about it. You don’t have to climb mountains, or even go to the gym, to build your Complexity Fitness.  In complexity language, “fitness” means something like “well-adapted to the conditions.”  Leaders can build their Complexity Fitness by cultivating a whole self that is well-adapted to the complexity of their context.  This means paying attention to and working with two related domains of their experience:

  • Identity. As humans, we are always, sometimes consciously but more often subconsciously, projecting and protecting some aspect of our identity.  The Hero, the Cool Cat, the Protector, the Risk-Taker.  Take your pick.  To build Complexity Fitness, we must learn to recognize the ways our identities are threatened in the face of complexity, notice how we are inclined to react as a result, and cultivate new practices that can shift unhelpful patterns.
  • Soma. The human nervous system is continuously producing sensations and urges. Mostly, we don’t notice them, but they are always there, giving rise to thoughts, feelings, and actions.  To build sustainable Complexity Fitness, it is imperative that we learn to notice subtle changes in our somatic experience, particularly those related to perceived threats.  Then we must notice how those threats lead us to do the opposite of what our complexity knowledge would otherwise have us do, and of course, engage in practices that cultivate a more Complexity-Fit soma.

Ok, so we know that Complexity Fitness means paying attention to and working with Identity and Soma in the face of complexity, still….what’s the process?  What can leaders (and all of us) actually do to build it?  Here’s a high-level roadmap.

See complexity. Really truly see your context (your world, your challenges, your job, your life) for what it is, rather than for what you wish it were.  Mountaineering is inherently unpredictable, from the weather (thunderstorms can happen almost anytime, and they often come out of the blue) to other people (someone in the party ahead of you carelessly kicks off a small rock, which quickly becomes a deadly projectile barreling toward you) to the mountain itself (a once reliable foothold, after years of use, unexpectedly comes loose).  In the two days of pre-climb training, this is one of the guides’ favorite topics of conversation.  It is not meant to scare, but to make Object (visible, as in “an object for your reflection”) the unpredictability of what we’re dealing with.  No amount of preparation or planning can help you accurately predict and avoid danger.  Seeing, accepting, and being willing to work with this reality is critical.

Pay close attention to Identity- and Soma-related dissonance.  Seeing that your world is not what you thought it was, the identity you have invested in creating and defending may feel like it’s under siege.  And your Soma is somehow involved in this experience. In my case, it never even occurred to me that I might be one of those people who didn’t make it to the real summit. When our guide, Nancy, said—“hey, folks, looks like we’re not moving fast enough to make it to the summit in time to safely get off the mountain,” my heart sank.  Then a little voice inside me said, “wait a minute—I’m in shape.  I’m tough.  I’m not a quitter.” At the same time, I noticed my jaw tightening and my shoulders raising.  My body was steeling myself to prove that I was in fact the Identity I thought I was.  I am NOT a quitter!

Notice, and pass on, the temptation to make it go away.  Remember, we humans are by our nature not fit for complexity.  We know that the natural reaction in the face of threat is to either fight, flee, or freeze.  Wrestle complexity to the ground.  Run as far away from it as you possibly can.  Ignore it until it goes away.  Tempting strategies but not particularly helpful if you are living in a world where complexity is the norm.  If you’re a Star Trek fan, it may help to remember and heed the Borg’s warning that resistance is futile. On the side of that mountain, only about 1500 feet below the summit and after days of training and over a mile of vertical distance under my belt, I was being told that my intention to conquer the mountain couldn’t be accomplished by my physical fitness, my cleverness with the technical skills, or force of sheer will.  To say that I was triggered in that moment would be an understatement.  Fortunately, because of the work I do, I know that my identity is merely a construction, built and fortified over the course of my lifetime through my words, my relationships, my actions, and my accomplishments.  I know that my body not only tells me things if I listen, but that it actually creates my thoughts and feelings (and they in turn create my somatic experience, a neat little feedback loop).  This knowledge and a little practice over the years enabled me to get on the balcony, see what was happening, lower my shoulders, unclench my jaw, breathe into my sinking heart, and have compassion for my identity that was under siege.   If not for these simple little moves, I might have either pushed myself to get to the real summit and gotten hurt (or worse, hurt someone else) or spent the rest of this amazing adventure beating myself up for not living up to the standards of my unexamined identity.

Tune the Instrument. Engage in ongoing practices that build your capacity to notice, blend with, and act skillfully on, with, and in complexity.  Complex systems are always in motion, changing from one moment to the next.  One node, one connection, one boundary changes and the whole thing can shift.  And since each of us is a complex system within bigger complex systems, there really is no point of arrival.  Building and maintaining Complexity Fitness is a lifetime endeavor.  So what practices can we engage in?  The possibilities are endless, and I’ll write more about some of them in a future blog.  What I noticed on the mountain was that our guides (most of whom probably couldn’t give a hoot about leading in complexity!) intuitively incorporated such practices into every aspect of the adventure. They watched us carefully during the training days, looking for patterns and inclinations that would help them understand our strengths and our vulnerabilities and weak points, so they could attend to those even when we might not be able to do that for ourselves.  They noticed when we were physically shaken and made moves to calm our nervous systems. They had us practice on a variety of rock terrain and encouraged us to appreciate and work with what we were given.  They helped us create stability in the face of uncertainty by practicing very specific procedures again and again until we could execute flawlessly. They were firm but compassionate.  They emphasized the importance of relying on each other and engaged us in practices that reinforced our connections.


If we are to truly prepare our leaders and ourselves to thrive—and lead others to thrive—in a complex world to address our world’s most pressing problems, we must all cultivate a little more Complexity Fitness.  The mountain made that abundantly clear for me.  What’s your mountain?


5 thoughts on “What the Mountain Taught Me About Complexity Fitness”

  1. Lisa Eby says:

    Complexity fitness – what a useful distinction! Your post allowed me to see my relationship to living and reacting in complex systems in a deeper and more nuanced way. Thank you Carolyn! I look forward to your next post.

  2. Ali Niederkorn says:

    It’s so helpful to remember we are not naturally built to be fit in complexity. This is so useful as our confidence builds and we start to assume our skills will become automatic – we can just “set it and forget it!” Continually bringing this reality to our awareness is key. Thank you!

  3. So eager to hear more.

  4. Josephine Schol says:

    Such a powerful analogy! Your story speaks to being truly present – there is no other way to be when you’re climbing a mountain! Being present allows us to see, hear and feel what is here right now and move with it, not stuck in old ways or overwhelmed by the complexity of what we think we’re facing. Great article – thank you for sharing your learning.

  5. Anna says:

    I love the insight about how we hold on to our identity and that this can be a hinderance to adapting to complexity. I particularly enjoy the invitation to pay attention to the wisdom of the body in this process.
    Lastly I appreciate the “summary” of how the mountain guides supported you in being with complexity, this is really valuable for me in being with clients, family, friends, partner . Thank you, Carolyn!

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