The following is a conversation between Jennifer Garvey Berger, the CEO of Cultivating Leadership and Author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving. 

Jennifer Garvey Berger, CEO of Cultivating Leadership and Author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps

Denver: The massive amounts of complexity and change that leaders face these days are unprecedented. And our system, both organizational and bodily systems, are not automatically good at coping with this. In fact, our instinct to simplify a complex world can be dangerous. 

This tendency and how to address it is captured in a wonderful book by my next guest. She is Jennifer Garvey Berger, the CEO of Cultivating Leadership and author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jennifer!

Jennifer: Thanks for having me, Denver. 

Denver: I just love the idea of a mindtrap. How would you describe one? 

Jennifer: A mindtrap is the thing that happens when we are kind of trundling along through our regular day, and we fall into some pattern or habit that actually is very unhelpful in the moment, but we don’t notice that it’s there, and we don’t even notice that we’ve fallen into it. And in carrying on, we just dig deeper and deeper and deeper into the hole.

I found that those mistakes weren’t kind of quirks built into organizational systems or quirks built into cultural systems. They really are built in us. We have evolved with these things that are very useful shortcuts during simple times, and they are very dangerous traps during complex times.

Denver: Wow. That’s a pretty good description of my life. Thank you. And you say that these are psychobiological, that they’re wired in, correct? 

Jennifer: This was the most interesting thing from my research… or one of the most interesting things I’ve found in my research. I had been noticing the ways that the leaders that I worked with – really smart, capable, wonderful humans, with all of the best intentions in the world and all of the motivation in the world – they kept making the same mistakes. And they made the same mistakes as nonprofit leaders in New Zealand, or as for-profit leaders in the US or in Europe or whatever. Exactly the same mistakes. 

And as I dug into that, I found that those mistakes weren’t kind of quirks built into organizational systems or quirks built into cultural systems. They really are built in us. We have evolved with these things that are very useful shortcuts during simple times, and they are very dangerous traps during complex times. 

Denver: I don’t mean to overstate it, but it almost sounds as if we need a new operating system for the modern world. Correct? 

Jennifer: This is it. The thing that I’m thinking is that we have— evolution can take us only so far. And we have been adjusting our external circumstances at such a rate that our capacity to evolve new ways of being just is not fast enough, which is why I talk about intentional evolution.

What do we have to do to intentionally evolve? And the first thing we need to do is notice that we need to evolve, right? Like if we weren’t cold, we wouldn’t notice that we need jackets. So, we need to intentionally notice what’s missing and then go after a way to get it. 

Denver: What’s interesting about that – we all seem to be aware that if organizations don’t keep up with the pace of change outside their four walls, they will become irrelevant over time. But we sometimes don’t transfer that to ourselves. We just put it to this entity of the organization. But obviously, if it’s not the people in the organization evolving at that same rate, we’re going to be in trouble.

Well, you talk about five mindtraps in the book, and let’s quickly run through them. The first one, and we’ve sort of alluded to it already, is trapped by a simple story. So, Jennifer, in a complex world where we all need a little clarity, what’s wrong with a simple story? 

Jennifer: Simplicity is a great thing. The problem is that humans create narratives super fast, and we create narratives out of almost no data. We string things together. We make a story about it, as if we were looking at the stars in the sky and building constellations out of those patterns. We look at the people in our lives or a problem that runs across our desk, and we have a constellation and a mythology to go along with that. And the problem is we don’t know that we have just made a mythology.

And so, noticing that this is a story and not the truth is kind of the first step to saying, “Oh, wait. I didn’t just discover the truth about something. I, in fact, just made up a story.” And that story is helpful until it’s not helpful. 

I think we want to have a new relationship to our intuition. I think we want to really tune into it because our intuition can be super helpful, but we don’t want it to own us. We don’t want our intuition to be the boss of us. We want our intuition to be one of the many things that we are taking in about a situation.

Denver: So, it seems to be that one of the counsels there would be to withhold our intuition as long as we possibly can, because it is that intuition that we have and that instant “This is it,” even maybe “We’ve seen this pattern before.” And it is so uninformed. 

Jennifer: It’s funny. People ask me about this question of intuition all the time. I think we want to have a new relationship to our intuition. I think we want to really tune into it because our intuition can be super helpful, but we don’t want it to own us. We don’t want our intuition to be the boss of us. We want our intuition to be one of the many things that we are taking in about a situation. 

Denver: Well, in this mythology we’ve just manufactured, along with that comes the second mindtrap – that we are trapped by rightness based on that. Tell us about some of the traps there.

Jennifer: This is a fantastic finding that goes across all different forms of psychology, behavioral economics, neurobiology, neuroscience, which is that mostly, we humans substitute a question that’s easy and knowable for a question that’s complex and unknowable. And then we answer that question without noticing the substitution, and then we believe that we are right.

And all of this happens just instantly, and then suddenly, we think we know just what’s going on and we don’t question ourselves. And then we gather data to support the thing that we just believed. And all of it is the work of the neurologist Richard Burton who talks about discovering that the sense of certainty is actually an emotion that has nothing to do with evidence or factor, or whether you’ve reasoned something well. So, the idea that we can feel certain, and that has nothing in any way to do with whether we’re right or not is like a very sobering finding.

Denver: But we are attracted to it very much. Even leaders who are very confident and certain of what they’re going to do, we tend to follow. I sometimes watch pundits on TV, who’ve been wrong about everything–I mean just everything–and then get on again the next time 100% certain about what’s going to happen next. And you say, “Well, this idiot…” but I guess we like that kind of certainty. We don’t like this ambiguity. 

Jennifer: We like it. And then we also revise retrospectively. So, they’ve done all kinds of studies with pundits to show that those pundits, they will give you a reason why they were wrong before, but they were really, really right. Like they might’ve been wrong in that moment, but really, really, they were right. Or they were right before other people thought they were right. Or they were right in this obscure way that you don’t understand that they were right when they sounded wrong. So we are able to justify our rightness in a way that means we don’t learn. We don’t learn. We can’t learn if we think that we’re right.

Denver: You even hear them saying, “You know, when I made that pronouncement, I said at the time ‘if these certain things didn’t happen…’ And they didn’t happen, so I was actually right.” 

Jennifer: That’s right. 

Denver: Well, if I can have a mindtrap that is my favorite, it would be “trapped by agreement.” OK? And look – everyone seems to be at everybody else’s throat. So, Jennifer, what’s wrong with a little harmony, a little peace, and seeking some alignment so we can all get along and move ahead? 

Jennifer: This one’s my favorite, too. So, I’m with you. I so agree with you. This one is the most beautiful of them all.

The thing that’s sobering about agreement is that it makes us collectively stupider. And it also makes us, even as we have the sense that we’re trying to agree with each other, that desperate desire to belong, to fit in together, doesn’t just make us less clever in a group. It also makes it harder for people who are different to actually feel like they belong.

And so, both for the sake of the strength and helpfulness of the collective response, and also to include voices of people who are not exactly like others. Being trapped by agreement is pretty– it can feel like the other ones… It can feel really nice in the moment, and actually it takes us down the wrong street.

Denver: And also you see so many leaders say basically, “This is what we’re thinking of doing. We’re going to go into this particular market. We really examined it. But I really want to hear what you guys think.” Well, guess what? You’re going to have a standard deviation of about one. 

Jennifer: That’s exactly right. 

Denver: You know where the boss wants to go. 

So how do you get alignment in an organization? That’s always so difficult. Do we have to have a new relationship with agreement, a new relationship with conflict? How do you try to create that alignment so you can go forward with your eyes opened? 

Jennifer: There’s this question about: How can we disagree in order to expand instead of disagreeing in order to dismantle? Very often, we think about conflict or disagreement as: I need to win. I need to take you down in some way. And therefore, if I don’t want to win and I don’t want to take you down, or I feel powerless to do that, I might pull back from that. 

But what we’re really after in these cases is to figure out: How can we disagree in order to expand what’s possible? How can we disagree in order to take in more perspectives? How can we disagree in order to hold a bigger view on the challenge that we face? And then with that bigger view, then we can get alignment. It’s sort of the genuine alignment instead of the fake alignment of pretending to agree.

Denver: Right. Because those sentiments are going to fester underneath, and they’re eventually going to come out. Even if you’re not aware of it, you’re going to dismantle the program or the intention because you never liked it in the first place. 

Jennifer: This is it. And you weren’t heard. You weren’t heard about it. 

Denver: And you weren’t heard about it. 

The fourth mindtrap is “trapped by controlling.” You’ve said, Jennifer, that that actually strips a leader of their influence. How so?

Jennifer: Well, we’ve all seen this – a leader who really gets anxious. And a lot of these are fueled by anxiety. A lot of these moves are fueled by our sense that we’re out of control and we need to wrest a little control back from the system. And leaders who feel out of control tend to come down too hard. They tend to micromanage. They tend to drive towards a single point instead of having their eyes open to a whole set of possibilities. And each of those things strips us of power ultimately, and it strips us of followership. 

So, the more we clamp down and try to make a thing happen, very often, the harder it is. You see this with leaders who want to instill trust. Trust is a thing that’s so hard to get in this COVID world. It’s so hard, and it’s so easy to break. And leaders who are like trying to force an agenda of trust – there’s nothing that will make people trust you less than being on and on about like ‘we must trust each other more.’ It just has all these perverse consequences.

Denver: And again, it goes back to the original thing you said about the complexity of the world. Maybe there was a point in time where a leader could control. Now, it has become so overwhelming, so complex, so complicated that you talk about a fool’s errand trying to control the enterprises these days. If you do that, it sounds like all you’re going to do is be a bottleneck in the organization. 

Jennifer: That’s exactly right. Denver, if you were… if 300 years ago, you were a glassblower or a blacksmith or whatever you were, you had an apprentice, you could control everything that person did, really, really shape the angle with which they held the tool and make a big difference. Now, if you are a leader, and you try to shape the angle with which somebody holds the tools, you are awful. Like you are… but the impulse is still inside us. It’s been in us for generations because that’s how we’ve been successful in the past.

Denver: That’s a cycle of biological aspect that you’re talking about. We’re wired that way to try to do it, and it just doesn’t work anymore. 

And finally – trapped by ego. And this maybe is not the ego in the classic sense ‘he’s got a big ego.’ It’s more of the self-identity and the perception of our self-ego, right? 

Jennifer: Well, you were talking about this from the very beginning. When people think “Oh, yes. We need to change fast, and the organization needs to change to keep up with what’s out there,” people don’t tend to say “And I need to really keep changing in order to keep up with what’s going on in here.” We don’t tend to say that. 

We tend to think we have arrived. Like we are – whew. We’ve come a long way. We’ve done our education. We’ve entered into these leadership positions, and – whew – now, we need to help other people. And actually, this shield we have up against our own capacity to grow is very problematic. 

Denver: That’s an interesting observation because I think most of us think that we have gone through that journey of growing, that you tend to look back and say, “Well, I was here, and I grew and I grew, and I developed and I evolved, and things of that…”

But now we think we’re in a Nirvana state. Like this is perfect. This is a perfect outcome, and I can stop. I’ve arrived. 

Jennifer: That’s exactly right. The myth of the arrival. I think you’re absolutely right. And we don’t have good stories or theories. We have them, but they’re not coming… to help us understand, in this modern world, what growth and development looks like that’s beyond a business card title change. 

We’re moved around by our emotions the way a sailboat is moved around by the winds. And we mostly don’t control the tiller at all. The emotions just sort of toss us. And there’s a lot of research about being able to differentiate and name our emotions –  that lets us be steered by them but not capsized by them. 

Denver: That’s a great point. Well, now we’ve laid those out, you talk about building lighter to escape these mindsets. And you say that starts with mindfulness, which helps us create connection. Connection to what, Jennifer? 

Jennifer: Complexity will tell us that connection is one of the most important ways we have to address things. So, in this case, it’s connection to many things. Connection to what’s going on inside us. 

So, one of the tools we have is our bodies. You talked earlier about intuition. Generally, intuition arises, I think, because our bodies experience something. We feel a sensation, and then we make up a story about it. And the intuition we tend to kind of anchor into at the level of story – “Oh, this is what’s going on here. This is the conclusion. Therefore, I shouldn’t do this, or therefore I should make him do this,” or whatever it is. But if we can step that back and connect into what the bodily sensations are, then we actually have a much bigger span of understanding. 

So, there’s a connecting into ourselves, our bodily sensations, and the emotions that we happen to be having. We’re moved around by our emotions the way a sailboat is moved around by the winds. And we mostly don’t control the tiller at all. The emotions just sort of toss us. And there’s a lot of research about being able to differentiate and name our emotions – that lets us be steered by them but not capsized by them. 

And then there’s connecting to other people. There’s how do we connect… complexity will tell us that every one of us is just too small and too limited to really make sense in a complex world. But when we have a network of sense-makers connected together, suddenly we are super smart. 

And so, trying to be connected to one another at these various levels – at the levels of their intuition, at the levels of their embodied sensations, at the levels of their emotions, their cognition, this whole thing. If we can be connected to each other in that way, then suddenly we really can harness the power of this diversity of thinking, and we can address these challenges. 

Denver: I love the point you make about the body because I’ve always found, let’s say, I’m going to get engaged in something that I really want to do. And my mind can rationalize that this is the thing that I should be doing. It can lie to me. But if that thing does not provide me energy, which is my body, then I say to myself, “There’s something going on here. I’m kind of grinding through this. There isn’t the energy there.” And it’s sort of like it’s the truth-teller to this PR agency up here in my brain, which is kind of devising rationales as to why I should, and it really is a great point you make.

Jennifer: Yes. I love this idea of the body is the truth-teller with a PR agency in your mind. I love this. This is very apt. 

We really will have a hard time extending compassion to others if we are brutal with ourselves… as long as we are constantly attacking ourselves, we’ll have a hard time holding the compassion that it takes to have people try and fail, which is necessary in complexity… to afford experimentation, to listen to different perspectives, to be expanded by conflict… All these things that are necessary in complexity.

Denver: Through this journey that you’ve talked about, you talk also about: it’s important for leaders to have self-compassion. Discuss that. 

Jennifer: I find the literature on self-compassion very beautiful. It says that we really will have a hard time extending compassion to others if we are brutal with ourselves. And a lot of the leaders that I’ve worked with, and often the ones who were really the hardest on their people, are the hardest on their people because of their own need to be perfect, their own need to never make a mistake, their own need to never color outside the lines.

And as long as we are constantly attacking ourselves, we’ll have a hard time holding the compassion that it takes to have people try and fail, which is necessary in complexity… to afford experimentation, to listen to different perspectives, to be expanded by conflict… All these things that are necessary in complexity. If we are trying all the time to be perfect and superhuman, we’re never going to be able to do these other things. 

And so, compassion for ourselves as human beings who are flawed and whole – this is I think more and more, I think this is one of the most important leadership capacities. 

Denver: Well, that’s sort of like: charity begins at home. And with compassion, if you don’t start at home with yourself, it’s going to be pretty hard to have compassion for other people. And if you do, it’s going to be very inauthentic, and people are going to know it’s not sincere. 

Let’s talk about COVID just a little bit, maybe what’s happened over the last year,  year and a half. And how do you think that’s going to shape the way leaders lead and the expectations that people have of their leaders going forward?

Jennifer: I think there are so many ways. So, first of all, COVID made it so that whole humans with bodies and hearts – we know that this is what we are. We used to pretend that this was not what we were, but now, people are whole – in this funny way as we are behind our screens. We are more whole because our dogs come in, and our kids are crying. And we get on the phone and we’re exhausted and we burst into tears, whatever it is. There’s something more whole about us. 

And leaders have had to deal with bigger emotions. Like the shields we have that somehow are enabled as we cross the thresholds into office buildings are not so well-enabled here as we sit in our kitchens or our living rooms. And so, leaders have had to expand to hold those things and make them talkable, speakable.

And at the same time, a lot of what leaders used to be able to rely on – intuition, a sense that when you walk into a building something’s not quite right, something’s… like a lot of that is gone. And a lot of the weak ties we have just from bumping into each other, a lot of that is gone as well. And so, leaders are having to be more intentional about creating the social fabric. Whereas before I think the social fabric, you could put in a micro kitchen with some caramel corn, and you get some social popcorn built. Now, that is much harder. 

And I guess the final thing I’ll say is I think that there’s something about COVID that lets us know that we are a part of a bigger and more interconnected world, that we cannot just be thinking about driving this result or launching this product on this day. These are small things inside a world that really is spinning out of our control. And it has let us know that the complexity and uncertainty and interconnectivity of our world is material and cannot be managed away. 

Denver: I think even as I looked at the nonprofit sector sometimes, we’ve looked at the kind of problems people have, whether it be education or poverty or affordable housing, and think that we could deal with those sequentially, one at a time. And the interconnectedness, that it’s all part of one major system is really beginning to say, “You just can’t take one and try to solve that problem.” 

And I do know what you’re talking about – the threshold. I love that word, too. Because when I think about my career, I do remember crossing the threshold into a building, and I said, “Time to take the emotional part of me and spiritual part of me and check it here at the front door. I’ll pick it up when I leave. But right now, just the rational part better come into the office, or otherwise people will look at me as—I don’t know—weak or strange or different. You just would not bring it in with you, or if you did, you hid it.” 

Jennifer: And what a tragedy to leave whatever percentage of your capacity that was, whatever percentage of your ability to connect with another human being, to solve a problem, to see the world in a different way. We need everything that everyone’s got. We need it working together to address the challenges we have right now, which are just enormous. 

Denver: Wonderful book, Jennifer. What are you working on next? 

Jennifer: Working on a book right now that is kind of the opposite of Mindtraps. So actually, during COVID, one of the things that happened to me is I got a little tired of telling leaders: “Here are the ways you’re screwing things up. Here are the ways that you’re doing it wrong…” because leaders understood that they were doing it wrong. 

And so, I started to be really interested in this question: What do we have in us that with a little bit more coaxing, a little bit more nurturing, we could bring out, that makes us great at handling complexity? Because while now is the most complex time I think humans have ever faced, humans have faced complexity always. And so, “What is it in us that is well-adapted to complexity?” is the question this new book is attempting to answer, and how do we take these embers, embers that the world often tries to put out, and how do we blow on them and coax them into something more fruitful? 

Denver: Well, I can’t wait to read it. That sounds absolutely fascinating. And it’s really spoken like a coach because what you were saying is: The answers are inside of us, and no magic dust has to come over you. They are there. They may be deep. They may be recessed, but they’re inside of us. And is there a way that we can bring that out? 

Well, the title of this book is Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity. It is such a worthwhile read. Tell us a little bit about the Cultivating Leadership website and the kind of information visitors will find there. 

Jennifer: Cultivating Leadership is a firm that a couple of friends and I started a decade ago that has grown into one of the most interesting organizations I’ve ever seen. And I can say this because I didn’t mean for it to happen. 

Denver: What makes it so interesting? 

Jennifer: Well, we are based in our humanity and in our friendship. We center doing good in the world and for one another, as opposed to maximizing return on some kind of monetary investment. And so, we really are built on these foundations of complexity, interconnectedness, purpose, compassion, curiosity, love. And we are now about 80 people around the world.

 Denver: Wow! 

 Jennifer: And something about the way we operate means that we have some of the most extraordinary humans alive, certainly in the field, and they’re doing incredible thinking and working together. So, if you come to the web— and we give everything away. We don’t believe in protecting IP. So, everything we have is available on our website. So, our ideas, everything from ideas to videos to slide decks, to podcasts like this one. We think ideas can make the world better, and we really want to be using ideas to help.

Denver: And that website is? 


Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Jennifer, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program. 

Jennifer: Thanks so much, Denver. Have a great day. 

 Denver: You, too.

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