Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Here is a book that seeks to confront our historic, cultural approach to leadership and nudge leading toward addressing the more rapidly changing and complex organizational and contextual landscape. Their strategy is to identify three habits of mind that individuals need to cultivate to make this shift from a focus on what is likely to what is possible. They say that three habits of mind are important:
- Asking different questions (instead of having the answers),
- Taking multiple perspectives (even when we disagree), and
- Seeing systems (including emergence).
We need to shift are way of thinking about leaders, as well:
New 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 all0-powerfully wrong.
Given the need for a new approach/perspective on leadership, this book offers ways of developing and using these habits in addressing complex challenges. The world is “filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” Seeing the systems shifts us away from narratives of cause and effect. The authors use David Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which he describes in the Cognitive Edge. This approach involves sorting unpredictable and predictable elements into the complex, the complicated, the chaotic and the simple. The approach they propose involves our staying in the present and unfolding our actions as the present becomes clear.
Different questions are enhanced through the development of a feedback mindset. Here it is important to address the assumption that the giver of feedback is the sole possessor of the truth. The need is to shift to questions about what can we learn in any given situation. By doing so we enhance our capacity for listening.
Those in leader roles are faced with the paradox of an ambiguous future and the need to encourage people to align around action. The value of a vision is that it sets a direction without imposing too many constraints (I would add that there are plenty of other sources of constraints in our collective lives). Leading with a vision (collectively generated through multiple perspectives) contributes to the context in which folks can make things happen. Recognizing the importance of listening and feedback for this process keeps the system and people limber and ready to redefine and reset direction through a change and development mode characterized by experimentation.
Seeing the system involves recognizing ever changing and shifting boundaries and patterns. Sustaining and generating an organization involves developing people to have the capacities outlined here… and more.