Leaders today are busier than they’ve ever been, and they are falling behind. It’s not only that the demands on them are so much more time consuming than they used to be (although that seems to be true). It’s that the nature of the challenges has changed in such a way that the tools and approaches of the past simply don’t work.
It’s like having an old operating system for your computer that opened files when you tried to close them and deleted things when you tried to save them. The operating system of our minds has a quirk when we are working in complexity, and that quirk sets us on a course of action that is the exact opposite of what the situation really needs.
Leading Well In Complex World
If you were an accountant in your town in the 1950s, you’d know that there were a certain number of changes you could expect—shifts in your client list, fiddles with the tax code, the way the economy of your town was reliant on the price of corn or cars or whatever people produced around you. You would know that no matter what happened, people would require your work, even if the particulars varied from year to year. You’d recognize the patterns from what you already knew, and you’d be able to see a narrow set of fairly predictable future possibilities; you’d have a pretty good guess what five years from now would look like.
Today there are so many things we deal with on a daily basis that are unpredictable, and there’s no way of telling how these unpredictable pieces will interact. It’s the interactions of all these unpredictable things that create complexity. The more interconnected we are, and the faster things are changing, the more complex our world is. This shifts formerly straightforward professions into confusing complex ones.
Accountants today wonder whether their entire profession is going away, whether they will be 90 percent replaced by computers (and when?), and what business they should bet on next to keep their firms alive. They have no idea what five years from now looks like. Their old leadership tools—to help them control, predict, plan—fail them. And worse, their ways of thinking and feeling about the issues at hand fail them too.
What is the most important shift I need to make if I am going to lead well in complexity? In this book, we will identify the mindtraps, look at the ways they’ve served us so far, and consider why they don’t work so well anymore. We’ll also learn some powerful keys to unlock the traps and escape to new possibilities.
Overcoming the Five Mindtraps To Lead Well
#1 Trapped by simple stories.
Your desire for a simple story blinds you to a real one. One of the things that defines us as humans is our propensity for stories. We love to tell them, to hear them. They carry the answers to some of our most important and bewildering questions. They have bound together tribes, religions, societies. We love them so much that we string together stories with a sort of once-upon-a-time feel, with one thing leading naturally to the next. Looking back at something, we can tell a coherent story about it that makes it sound inevitable and neat, and therein lies the rub. We don’t notice how simple the story is that we are telling ourselves, and we don’t notice the ways the story itself shapes what we notice. The problem is twofold: first, that past story wasn’t so clean or inevitable while it was happening; and second, we try to use that same skill looking forward, which in fast-changing times you can’t, because you can’t tell which of the many, many possibilities will emerge. We made the past story simple in our memory, looking back, and now we imagine an equally simple plot line going forward. In both cases we’re probably wrong. Leaders who put too much faith in their heroic tales of the past and project simplistic versions of the future can be alluring—and ruinous. To escape we need to find our way out of our simple stories and back into our complex real ones.
#2 Trapped by rightness.
Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right. We each look at the world and believe we see it as it is. In truth, we see it as we are, a gap that is as large as it is invisible. And because we believe in what we see, and we don’t notice those things we don’t see, we have a sense of our being right about most things most of the time. Sure, sometimes we are uncertain, and we notice that feeling, often with discomfort. It’s when we are not uncomfortably uncertain that we tend to assume we’re right. “Wrongology” expert Kathryn Shultz calls this “error blindness” and writes, “As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us.”
When we are uncertain, we search around for understanding and we learn; when we know we’re right, we are closed to new possibilities. When leaders believe they are right in a complex world, they become dangerous, because they ignore data that might show them they are wrong; they don’t listen well to those around them; and they get trapped in a world they have created rather than the one that exists.
#3 Trapped by agreement.
Longing for alignment robs you of good ideas. For much of human history, we have needed to make snap judgments about our tribe. Are you with me or against me? If you’re in my tribe, we need to be in relatively easy agreement in order to survive. In fact, connection is so important that our brains have developed so that we experience social pain and physical pain as nearly the same thing. This has been a significant gift; our ability to agree and together create communal outcomes has enabled much of what is great about us. Meanwhile, conflict has often had pretty dire and disruptive consequences. Disagreement that leads to polarization has led to significant us-versus-them conflicts. In times that are uncertain and changing fast, though, too much agreement, like too much polarization, is a problem. Too much agreement, while pleasant, makes us follow a narrow path rather than expanding our solution space. It makes it harder to create and pursue the wide span of options that will leave us prepared for whatever the uncertain future demands. With complexity, we need diversity of experience, approach, and ideas, and we need to learn how to harness conflict rather than push it away.
#4 Trapped by control.
Trying to take charge strips you of influence. Humans are made happy by being in control. Leaders seek to keep their hands on budgets and outcomes and behaviors and are often rewarded for doing so (or seeming to do so). In fact, it’s the feeling of being (and looking like) you’re in control and that you’ve planned for all the contingencies that has long defined our image of leadership. This means that if we don’t look or feel in control, we fear we aren’t in fact leading anything—we’re just letting life happen to us. In complex times, though, we cannot control what will happen next; there are too many interrelated parts. And because complex outcomes are hard to produce (or measure), people often exchange simplistic targets for the larger goals they are seeking. When we care about big, complex, intertwined issues, leadership requires the counterintuitive move of letting go of control in order to focus on creating the conditions for good things to happen—often with outcomes better than we had originally imagined.
#5 Trapped by ego
Shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach for who you’ll be next. Though we rarely admit it to ourselves or others, we also spend quite a lot of our energy protecting our seemingly fragile egos. While humans have a natural drive toward change, we tend to believe that we have changed in the past and won’t change so much in the future. This leads us to a strong and compelling reactive response to protect the person we think we are—in our eyes and in the eyes of others. Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this protection “the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today.” They explain that it comes from the natural tendency people have of “preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves.”
When we try to defend our egos rather than grow and change, we end up perfectly designed for a world that happened already, instead of growing better able to handle the world that is coming next.
Building The Ladder
Each of the mindtraps has its own particular escape path and each of those paths makes us more complexity-friendly in general as we learn to ask new questions about our lives and our thoughts, listen more deeply to others, and find a way to continually learn from our lives.
As we use these keys, we are unlocking new possibilities in the uncertainty and complexity all around us.
There is no way we will ever escape all of the mindtraps that complexity sets for us; the world is moving so much faster than our poor evolutionary systems can manage. We will always be dealing with the massive ambiguity and uncertainty in our lives with some difficulty. And perhaps that’s the point. Humans have long thrived on facing the impossible in order to push beyond it: to create fire, to craft cathedrals, to erect skyscrapers, to cure polio.
Our ability to grow beyond our reflexes is likely to shape what happens next to us as a species as we reject simplistic reactions and find our bigger selves so that we can solve some of the most complex challenges humanity has ever faced.