As the world grows more complex, leadership is having to adapt to keep pace. One of my favourite models for changing your approach to leadership comes from Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders.
In my next few blog posts, I’m going to give you an overview of their main points, starting off with the idea of ‘leading the possible’. As Berger and Johnston explain, “complexity is about getting our heads around what is possible (because anything could happen) rather than what is probably going to happen (which is determined from what has happened before).”
In other words, as things change increasingly rapidly, it gets harder to predict what will happen next based on what’s happened before. Making decisions based only on what we think is ‘probable’ isn’t enough – we need to be aware of the whole scope of what is ‘possible’.
So, how do you begin to shift your mindset? How do you remain open to challenges and opportunities which you’ve not encountered before? Berger and Johnston suggest that you cultivate three simple habits of mind:
Asking different questions
Taking multiple perspectives
And seeing systems
These habits of mind are simple, yes, but that doesn’t mean that cultivating them is easy. Our ways of thinking are deeply ingrained, and changing them takes active effort.
This ties into the idea of neuroplasticity. The things you think every day wear deep grooves in your mind, making it easier to follow those same paths again and again. But you can build up new neural pathways by consciously, repeatedly following a different route. It will be very difficult at first, but as you make those grooves deeper, you’ll start to find that you go down that path more and more easily, until eventually it’s unconscious.
This is actually an idea which has been a key part of DE&I practice for a while now, in the form of unconscious bias training. You can take tests to identify areas where you’re acting with bias you’re not even aware of, then, armed with that new knowledge, you can begin to rewire those damaging thought patterns.
Berger and Johnston point out that it’s especially so-called ‘hero leaders’ who struggle to accept that they have these well-worn but faulty neural pathways. They prefer to think they’re always making cool-headed, logical decisions, but “research tells us that charismatic leaders are more likely to leave the organization in a mess; that even when we think we’re making decisions with clear heads, we’re actually responding to unconscious thoughts; and that all-powerful leaders often go all-powerfully wrong.”
Accepting that almost no one is capable of dispassionately logical decision-making all the time is an essential step on the way to leading the possible, rather than following after what you think is probable.
Asking different questions is perhaps the easiest of the three habits of mind you need to cultivate here. “The biggest barrier to the transformational nature of asking different questions is simply to remember to try to do it.”
Taking multiple perspectives is harder. Especially when something has gone wrong, we can instinctively fall into blame and defensiveness, even if we know on some level that they aren’t useful. I’ve written before about the fact that great leaders always make the effort to listen to diverse voices, especially ones which are critical.
As hard as it is, genuinely listening to different perspectives (not just giving them a cursory glance and dismissing them) is absolutely essential for good leadership today. “Leadership — whether at a global scale or on a small cross-functional team — is not about standing on either side of a river shouting at each other. [It’s] about gathering people together — even people with quite different goals and understandings — and helping them build bridges that take everyone to a new place.”
And of course, systems thinking doesn’t come naturally to most people. We instinctively want to see clear cause and effect relationships, and in complex systems (and every organisation is its own complex system) that relationship can be muddied. But “complexity theory urges taking a look at the current system and how it operates in order to create the conditions that are emerging — so that leaders can strengthen the conditions they want and weaken the ones they don’t.”
Leaders and managers in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment need to put in the hard work to develop these three habits of mind. Over time it will become easier and easier to ask a wide range of questions, listen to as many perspectives as possible, and consider problems systemically.
I’ll leave the last words to Berger and Johnston:
“In a simpler world, perhaps unilateral power held by a single, smart, capable leader could rule the day. In a complex world […] it takes a collective sharing of power, creativity, and perspectives to become agile and nuanced enough to lead into the uncertain future.”