Simple Habits for Complex Times
Powerful Practices for Leaders
Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston



If you’ve picked up this book, you’ve probably noticed that things in your world are a little more complex—maybe even a little more overwhelming—than you’d like. You might be finding that you have to balance the needs of more people than you did before and that there is more volatility of perspective than you used to notice. Or maybe you’re finding that the pathway that used to look clear is murkier than you’d like. Or maybe you think you would be a better leader if you could just find a way to slow down all the changes in your team or organization or sector so that you could catch your breath.

We know what you mean. While we have taught leaders around the world and researched, read, and written about leadership, we have found that this rise in complexity, ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty is not just lingering around the edges of our workdays: it’s everywhere. Coping with these changes requires whole new ways of making sense of the world and of taking action to make a difference. Some of these new ways are about how we have conversations and learn from one another, others are about how we solve intractable problems, and still others are about how we plan for an unknowable future.

We have been motivated by many good books on complexity and on leadership that explain carefully how the world is changing, how our ways of understanding it are changing, and how leaders must change to be more effective. But once you’re convinced that you need to be different, what then? Leaders tell us they want to learn more about what can they do to begin to make these changes. What steps can they take? What equipment would help them on their journey? How might the pieces come together to enable them to thrive as leaders? We’ve spent the past decade trying to answer that question. Here’s what we’ve found.

As you might guess, learning to thrive in this new world is no simple enterprise, no quick trip to a theme park about complexity. Instead, it’s a long and scenic hike through the wilderness, wading through rushing rivers that might unsettle you and going into forest so deep you can’t see what’s coming next. To thrive in this wilderness and come to love it, you’ll need new muscles and new ways of making sense of the world around you, new practices that will augment your current approach.

We have organized our expedition to first explore the habits of mind you’ll want to develop en route, the habits that will shape your thinking and action over time. We use those habits to explore the various terrains we’ll encounter as we learn to thrive in complexity: the way we think about and interact with people, the way we think about and solve problems, and the way we lead ourselves and others into a better tomorrow. In each case, the complex conditions of the world create the practice, which we support with habits of mind that you’ll develop as you read. Our companions for the journey are a set of leaders, all of whom are working with their own complex challenges—their stories will unfold as we travel together.

Chapter 1 introduces what we mean about these shifts in complexity, volatility, ambiguity, and uncertainty that seem to be growing in our workplaces and our families right now. We also begin to explore the habits of mind that will accompany us through the other chapters. We meet Yolanda and Doug and learn about the tragedy that has marked their day.

Chapter 2 reminds us that while the world is complex, some things are still simple, and it pays to know the difference between the two when it comes to how you might think about and work toward the solution of an issue. Yolanda and Doug learn about complexity and why it matters to them.

Chapter 3 looks at how feedbacks flow through systems and relationships, and it offers a way to use feedback in a complex space. We meet Jarred and see in action the little miseries we inflict on one another in our quest not to hurt each other.

Chapter 4 takes on the question of how to create and spread a vision even when you can’t know what the future will hold. Jarred attends a strategy workshop and ponders his role.

Chapter 5 debunks the idea that we are logical creatures, because simple, cold-blooded logic, in addition to being out of our grasp, is also limiting the face of a complex and nonlinear world. Instead, we can delight in our particular quirks and build organizational practices and perspectives that help us as we are instead of as we imagine ourselves to be. Yolanda conducts a study and has to remind herself not to jump to unfortunate conclusions.

Chapter 6 addresses the question of how a leader can communicate all this complexity to others, and how doing so is different from communicating about something that looks simpler and more predictable. Jarred hosts some people at his house for a weekend strategy session to support his mom.

Chapter 7 focuses on the ways we change over time to become better able to handle complexity and ambiguity, and it highlights the benefits of both thinking about that change and also doing it. The leaders of Jarred’s organization meet with board members to understand what changes in them personally might be necessary to support the changes the organization requires.

Chapter 8 brings these ideas together into a model of how a leader can use a complex approach to create change in an organization. One year later, we get a sense of how things have worked out for our characters and where they might go next.

In all of the chapters, we offer tools, approaches, and new questions to ask that leaders around the world have told us are the most helpful ones in facing this more complex world with grace. As you try out these powerful practices, we think you’ll find that the complex world will become less of a problem to be solved and more of a landscape to savor and discover.

Welcome to the trail.