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17 April 2018

Fifteen handholds to leading in complexity

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Living in any new place would have me reflecting on the past and on my path here, but living in London increases that reflection. Everywhere I look, there are reminders of the past—from the old buildings, to the shelling scars still left from WWII, to the names of streets and people I come across in Victorian novels. I sometimes feel like I’m on a movie set—such a strange difference from the stunning but relatively newly-settled New Zealand.

And I’ve also been looking back, as I comb through the 100 blogs I’ve written for this site. There are funny patterns I notice. Obviously, I have long been curious about what makes us rise to our biggest selves and what makes us shrink back. While I have been writing about this topic since before I wrote Changing on the Job, it has taken until this year for us to design programs specifically to support leaders to nurture bigness in others (here’s a look at one key way). And of course, a key part of helping others be big is allowing ourselves time and space to breathe and how to make that space by going slow to go fast. Funny that I was writing about how important time and space was in 2012, but I still struggle with giving myself time and space. (Perhaps an example of “take my advice, I’m not using it!”)

Many of the blogs from this period were thought pieces to work through what Keith and I were writing Simple Habits, and so there are explorations of Cynefin and other complexity concepts like dispositions  and attractors. Still remarkably current in this world of baffling global unrest and random tweeting, are the different questions we should ask in unpredictability. And in times when change has taken on such a powerfully negative emotional spin, it’s even more important to use the emotions of change to assist us to make positive changes rather than simply having those emotions get in the way.

It turns out I was reading a lot more in 2012 than I’m reading these days (although the book I’m reading now is a stunner—makes me gasp as I come across one or another astonishing fact about scaling. More on this next time). Nassim Taleb’s idea of Anti-fragility—those things that get better when they are stressed or pushed or strained—I also find captivating. I love the paradox that too much safety is dangerous, which makes me wonder that perhaps adult development itself is an antifragile property.

One of the things that strikes me most is the way the core investigations about leadership, complexity, and our complexity of mind are still my deepest fascinations. While I sometimes find my taste in reading, writing, and ideas eclectic, there is a clear through line in what I care most about. I remain curious about what characteristics help leaders thrive in complex times. One core characteristic is clearly agility and a second is curiosity. I think self-compassion is pretty vital as well if we are to stretch and fail and grow.

Rereading these blogs is both refreshing—so much of the content is still what I believe and (mostly) practice. And it’s daunting because I know now with 20/20 hindsight that the next block of blogs will be written as I was diagnosed with cancer the first time. I’m curious about how that will shape my thinking about life and development and leadership and uncertainty in those moments. Stay tuned to find out!

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