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25 June 2018

Lessons for leadership and life

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I was interviewed not long ago by Shane Parrish who has a really fine podcast called The Knowledge Project. Our far-ranging and delightful conversation meandered around complexity, leadership, adult development and life. One of the questions Shane asked was about whether my study these things had changed my life. And of course, it has, mightily.

I’ve been reminded of this strongly as I have been updating and curating the best of the 100 blogs I’ve written for the Cultivating Leadership website. The set I’ve just finished editing is from 2014, the year I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. It is fascinating and somewhat difficult to look back on that time from this perch, 4.5 years (and one more bout of cancer) later and see how my life was tumbling so quickly into the world of complexity, uncertainty, and confusion. Adult development theory and complexity theory were incredibly important in helping me make sense of my own fear, my own deep craving for certainty about the future.

For example, Peter Coleman’s excellent book on complexity and conflict, The Five Percent, was a great comfort to me as I figured out how I could use ideas about basins of attraction to make me a happier person. It connected me back to my larger purpose as he reminded me why development was important in complexity. Cynefin was a help in both talking to my chemo nurses and also figuring out how to make important decisions in the absence of really good data.

Happily, there were also plenty of non-cancer related things to learn about complexity in 2014 as well. I wondered then (and continue to wonder) about how to think of an emergent strategy rather than searching to predict and control. I began to write about what capacities Complex Adaptive Leaders needed (hint: they’re different from the capacities leaders need in a more predictable world) See here and here. I offered new ways to solve problems in complexity and new ways to judge which solutions to follow. And, because learning in complexity was constantly on my mind (because I was constantly learning from complexity), I wrote about learning. A lot. Learning from failure here and here.  Learning from outliers. Learning from what is possible rather than what is probable.

Revisiting these blogs at the same moment I’m leaning into this new London life is incredibly helpful for me. Here in London my uncertainty about the future looms large. Shall we stay in this apartment? Shall we belong to the little garden square on which we live? What shall we do with the dog, still running on the beach in New Zealand with our house sitter there? Many of the ideas I wrestled with in 2014 are alive now too, and I am deeply grateful to be able to wrestle with them now in a non-cancer context. Let me know whether these ideas are resonant for you as well and how you’re living through the uncertainty of your life.

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