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Simple Habits for Complex Times

Powerful Practices for Leaders

By Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston
15-minute read
Audio available
Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston

Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015) is a guide for leaders looking to navigate today’s ever-shifting and always uncertain world. Rather than presenting one-size-fits-all solutions only suitable for static problems, this management manual teaches the art of nimble thinking.

  • Budding CEOs aiming to build leadership skills
  • Ambitious auteurs looking to become team players
  • People interested in the psychology of leadership

Jennifer Garvey Berger is a leadership coach and internationally renowned expert on development and management. She is the founder of Cultivating Leadership, a school for teaching leadership skills and the author of Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World.

Keith Johnston holds a PhD in leadership development from Australian National University. His previous work includes several management positions in New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and chairing the global board of trustees of Oxfam International.

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Simple Habits for Complex Times

Powerful Practices for Leaders

By Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston
Synopsis

Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015) is a guide for leaders looking to navigate today’s ever-shifting and always uncertain world. Rather than presenting one-size-fits-all solutions only suitable for static problems, this management manual teaches the art of nimble thinking.

Key idea 1 of 9

Our complex world requires new approaches to leadership.

Here’s a tough scenario: Yolanda just became the head of a government agency responsible for placing children in foster care. It would be a great gig, but the agency is a mess. In her first year on the job, multiple children are hurt or go missing.

She does everything she can to solve the problem. She commissions reports, internal investigations, and fact-finding missions. In the end, all this research turns up tons of information but no answers. There are just too many variables to consider and no patterns to be found.

The key message here is: Our complex world requires new approaches to leadership.

The world is a very different place than it used to be. There are more people, more ways to communicate, and everything from supply lines to personal networks can now span the entire globe. All this intricate interconnection gives rise to a set of conditions we can abbreviate to VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

VUCA poses a particular challenge to leaders, a category that includes everyone from the heads of big businesses to parents and teachers. Leaders have traditionally made decisions about the future by examining the past. However, in our VUCA world, the past is no longer a great predictor of what is to come.

Think about it. 500 years ago, there were only a handful of careers to choose from. Today, choosing the right course of study means anticipating a career that might not even exist yet.

Under these conditions, an effective leader needs to cultivate three crucial mental habits.

First, they need to practice asking different questions. You should always ask questions that broaden your thinking rather than narrow it. For instance, if something goes wrong, don’t just ask “what happened?” also ask “what else could have happened?”

Second, leaders need to take multiple perspectives. Don’t simply rely on your own point of view. Make an effort to understand how others see a situation. Even if you disagree, the difference in thinking or reasoning could provide valuable insight.

Third and finally, leaders need to see systems. This means taking a step back and looking for unexpected connections. It’s easy to look at the world as a series of single causes and effects, but it’s more accurate to see the world as a web, where each action has multiple causes and multiple effects.

Let's look at how this all plays out in action.

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