The following is a conversation between Jennifer Garvey Berger, co-author of Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: As the world becomes increasingly complex, it might seem that humans are not capable of managing that level of complexity. My next guest, however, believes that is not the case as long as we can tap into our natural inclination towards connection, engagement, and creativity– all necessary skills to thrive in complexity. She is Jennifer Garvey Berger, the Chief Executive Officer of Cultivating Leadership and the author of Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead.

Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Jennifer.

Jennifer Garvey Berger, the Chief Executive Officer of Cultivating Leadership and the author of Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead

Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me, Denver. It’s great to be back.

Denver: Let me begin with the word in the title of your book, “Complexity.” What’s the difference between complicated and complex?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think this is a super important place to start. Thank you for asking me this question because we talk about these two words as though they’re interchangeable, and Dave Snowden makes a really useful distinction between them. His idea is that complicated things are knowable, they’re solvable, but they’re tricky.

Like your taxes are complicated, your car is complicated, your heating system is complicated. Like there are lots of things in your life: If you want to draw up a will, it’s complicated. Like all these things in our lives that require experts and expertise, but the experts and the expertise are going in the same direction, and they ought to be able to solve it, not just for you, but for anybody who comes along.

Complex, on the other hand, is unknowable. You can’t know. You can kind of always know that somebody can figure out your taxes; you don’t always know that somebody can figure out your children, right? Or this question of: how do you innovate the next big thing: You don’t know. Or all the questions that you’re involved in– How do we solve some of the world’s trickiest social and environmental problems? Like we don’t know. We don’t know.

And anybody who tells you they know for sure how to do it is wrongheaded. These are complex. These are entwined, entangled, and we can only know what’s going to happen after it happens. And so instead of being able to use our expertise and our experience to solve a thing, we need to use our creativity, our connection, our perspective-taking to begin to nudge it in a particular direction and learn all the while we’re nudging.

“We all, in some measure about some things, are control freaks. And the control freak in us hates this idea that we can’t put our hands on it and control it. You can’t control complexity, you can only work with it.”

Denver: Yeah. So if I’m a control freak, I might thrive in a complicated world, but not so much in a complex world. That could pretty much freak me out because I have to be adaptive and just have to be able to live with ambiguity, and a lot of people have a hard time doing that.

Jennifer: My goodness. I mean, we all, in some measure about some things, are control freaks. And the control freak in us hates this idea that we can’t put our hands on it and control it. You can’t control complexity, you can only work with it.

Denver: Well, you discussed, and this was the “aha” of the book for me, the paradox of complexity and this has to do with our nervous systems. What is this paradox?

Jennifer: Yeah, it was a fascinating discovery that my co-author Carolyn and I made as we were doing our research for this book into how we must be great at this. And we found all these areas that humans are incredible at complexity, incredible at dealing with complexity. And we’re like: why then is it so hard?

And it turns out it’s so hard because we are great at dealing with complexity until it gets really complex, and then our nervous system tells us this is a threat. Like, narrow your focus, protect yourself. Circle the wagons. Think very focused and small and directed. Put your hands on it. Control it. This is what our nervous system directs us to do.

Denver: Stay alive.

Jennifer: All of these things. That’s exactly right, stay alive. And our nervous system does this whether the thing that we’re protecting ourselves from is like the immediate threat, physical threat of like an enemy coming at us, or whether it’s like the psychological threat of facing into a day when we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

It’s one thing if you need to run like crazy to get away from somebody. It’s a really different thing if you need to think about: How am I going to handle the uncertainty of my day?

Denver: And I don’t know the difference, do I?

Jennifer: Your nervous system doesn’t know the difference.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: So your automatic reaction says this is a threat, and that is a threat. It’s the same. And this is the paradox, is that when things are not super complex and our nervous system kind of relaxes, then we can handle complexity easily. The problem is our nervous system feels it is a threat.

Denver: Well, talk a little bit about the nervous system. And how does our nervous system work? And I know there’s two different parts of it, explain those to us.

Jennifer: Yeah. So we live in the dance of these two halves of our nervous system. One is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the activation nervous system. The fight or flight, it’s often called. But it’s like the thrill and activation. We get stuff done in the sympathetic.

And then we have the parasympathetic nervous system. Both of these words are, whatever, very medical. But anyway, these are the words. We have the parasympathetic nervous system and that one is, we call it the connect and create nervous system.

This is the nervous system for relaxing, for sleeping, for good conversation, for laughing, for creativity. And that one is great at handling complexity. And the sympathetic nervous system is not helpful at handling complexity because it’s a simplifier. It seeks to simplify, protect you, and get out.

Denver: I do not mind medical terms as long as I can pronounce them, and these were two that I could pronounce. So you picked the right ones.

Jennifer: Excellent. Excellent.

Denver: Yeah, when this happens, okay, complex, my nervous system is going from parasympathetic to sympathetic, one of the things you say is to listen to my body. Now, why would I do that? This is complex. I’m going to figure this out, and you’re telling me to listen to my body. Why?

Jennifer: Yeah. It’s because we don’t necessarily notice that this has happened. We just think: Oh, I’ve got to do a thing. Like, I’ve got to move, I’ve got to write that email. I’ve got to research on the internet. I’ve got to tell off my kid for doing this thing. Like whatever it is, we experience this action urge.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: But we don’t experience: Oh, I wonder if my sympathetic nervous system is activated, and what shall I do about it? This is not the thought that comes to our mind. And so the question, the first question is: Can we begin to notice?

Can we begin to notice how we’re breathing, how we’re standing, how our body is engaged? Because actually there are a ton of clues there. And then once we’ve noticed, then we can do something about it. Can’t do anything about the activation of our nervous system if we don’t notice it.

Denver: How do you go about noticing it? I mean, that takes some focus. It takes some concentration. It takes some discipline. We’re not inclined to want to do it because again, we’re on a high wire right now. But one thing I will say is I have noticed my body never lies to me, and my head lies to me all the time.

And any time, for instance, I want to get engaged in something, Jennifer, and it’s really good for me and I talk myself into it, but the energy is not there, my body never lies about the energy. If my body is telling me, “Ooh, you really like this,” I actually really like this. Where this thing up here: I can talk it into anything. So, how do you get back in touch with your body?

Jennifer: Yeah. So many of us use our bodies as like the vehicle that takes our head from meeting to meeting.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: But actually there’s a ton of wisdom here because as you’re saying, our body tells us things that our head fights for only so long. So just noticing, first of all, just beginning to notice: do I have a body? What’s tense about me?

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: What’s my breath doing in my chest, in my belly? And how am I standing? How am I poised? Really just beginning to check in with the body. It sounds so simple. Actually, I think it’s one of the most underutilized leadership tools we have available to us.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: Particularly the breath, to notice the breath. Notice how deep or shallow it is. Shallow breath is a sign of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Deep breath is the sign of the, not only the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, but actually it is the switch that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. We have the switch like right there available to us all the time, and we don’t use it that often.

“So these Genius Engagement Moves, we have all through us, all through our biology, all through our interrelations, all through our own identities. We have all of these geniuses that help us handle complexity super well. The problem, as we’ve just discussed, the complexity paradox is that they shut down when we’re facing something really complex. Not a great system, so we need something to turn them back on.”

Denver: Yeah. And I noticed when I try to notice my body, I always look for a particular part of it where I’m feeling the tension and I begin a discussion with it because you feel tense, but then you say, Well, where are you tense? Oh, I’m tense right here in my neck. Well, feel your neck.

And it kind of starts a dialogue going, which slows me down because I guess part of it is we need to slow down to be able to move fast. And what you’re urging us to do is to slow down through these Genius Engagement Moves, and I want to talk a little bit about those. But tell us what a GEM is.

Jennifer: So these Genius Engagement Moves, we have all through us, all through our biology, all through our interrelations, all through our own identities. We have all of these geniuses that help us handle complexity super well.

The problem, as we’ve just discussed, the complexity paradox is that they shut down when we’re facing something really complex. Not a great system, so we need something to turn them back on. We’re looking for a switch, and these Genius Engagement Moves are switches… that some of them are simple, some of them are trickier, some of them are a lifetime’s work, but a good lifetime’s work because the geniuses are great.

And so if we can engage them more often, get them more into our lives, then we are creating the conditions to not just manage our nervous systems, not just help shape the nervous systems of those we lead, whether leading a family or a small community or a team, but also to have good, creative, connected lives. It’s pretty good.

Denver: Yeah. Well, we’re going to get to a couple of those, but I want to pick up on something you said before, which is one of them, I guess, and that is the action urge. Okay. I’m on the high wire, I got to do something. I ain’t going to sit around. I mean, speed is everything… I’m doing it. What do I do when I get that action urge that I’ve got to address this, and I’ve got to address this person right now before another moment passes?

Jennifer: I’m sure we can all feel into that, right? There’s sometimes when I find myself typing a response to an email, before I’ve even noticed that I’m annoyed; I might even hit send before I’ve fully taken in, “Oh, that person has offended me in some grave way.” I just think… the thought I have is like “You’re wrong, and I need to fix it.”

Denver: Yeah, you’re right. They were wrong.

Jennifer: That’s right. And so the question is: Can we begin to notice this action urge? The action urge is super helpful in situations where we have a physical threat to respond to. It is not at all helpful if what we have is an identity threat to respond to because there, we really want to be activating our complexity friendly nervous system.

And so the first thing is to notice: I am having an action urge right now. And then you ask, Is this useful or not? Because a lot of the time as we’re faced with more and more complexity in our lives, a lot of the time that action urge is not your friend.

Denver: Yeah. Have you found, Jennifer, that people are having a more difficult time noticing in a world of social media and shortened attention spans? I mean, noticing is kind of a thoughtful moment where you put things aside, you freeze for a second, and you pay attention to what’s going on. And it just doesn’t seem that our world, the way it is right now, is going to bring out our noticing traits as much as we wish they would.

Jennifer: Absolutely. This is one of the things about the geniuses. The geniuses are available to us, but when things are moving fast and furious, we actually have to go and fetch them. They don’t come to us automatically; we have to choose.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: And noticing is one of those things. We can notice. At any moment, we can notice. The more complex it is, the more noisy it is. Social media, you described– huge complexity, lots of demand, all these things that are vying for our attention.

Each of them distracts us from our capacity to actually be present in this moment right now, which is necessary in complexity. Because in complexity, what’s happening now is the place from which we can innovate. That’s the place from which we can move, but we can’t see it if we don’t really pay attention.

Denver: It all starts with noticing, no question about it. Genius of moving… speak about that.

Jennifer: So this here, I’m not talking about exercise. I’m talking about actually: How do we handle, not just our bodies, but our nervous systems? So remember, when we are activated because for generations and generations, the thing that we were trying to do was avoid death, and you avoid death through physical activity, basically. From almost all of human history, you avoided death through physical activity.

Now, the thing that we’re faced with is being really pissed off in a traffic jam or being really frustrated by a problem we can’t solve. And so what do we do? Do we race away from the problem? Do we race toward the traffic jam? No. We just feel stressed out of our minds, and our body needs to burn that off. We need to move it through.

There are actual series of chemical compounds in our bodies that are released by the sympathetic nervous system that if they stay in our bloodstream, they cause all sorts of mischief. And we can get them out of our bloodstream by exercising, by running, by even changing our position and our shape briefly. Not to be a marathon runner, but to be out of breath for 30 seconds changes the chemicals that course through our veins.

Denver: It’s funny you say that. My mom was a first grade teacher and I remember as a kid when she was having rough days, and she always would say when she had a lot of boys in her class: she knew how her year was going to go when she saw the division of boys versus girls.

But I said, What do you do? And she says, I just put them out on the playground for 15 minutes in the middle of the afternoon. And then she says they come back and everything’s a lot calmer. And that’s an old lesson, but I guess it applies to us today.

Jennifer: It’s exactly the same. We’ve learned to not hit each other. As we grow, we learn how not to be super disruptive in a meeting, and most of us learn this.

Denver: I think, if you live in New York, I think we’re relearning how to hit each other.

Jennifer: That’s right. That’s right. But just because we can contain it doesn’t mean that it’s good for us.

“…it became so clear to us that the things that we need for complexity, our ability to connect, our ability to innovate, our ability to perspective take, to scan widely, all of these things are profoundly hampered by lack of sleep.”

Denver: Yeah. Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum, the genius of sleeping.

Jennifer: Sleep, we really went back and forth about whether to include this section on sleep because everybody tells you, you ought to sleep. But it became so clear to us that the things that we need for complexity: our ability to connect, our ability to innovate, our ability to perspective take, to scan widely, all of these things are profoundly hampered by lack of sleep.

And one of the things we noticed during COVID is that a lot of people stopped travelling, but they still time-travelled. Like still there would be meetings of my global team and those meetings would start at 1:00 a.m., and: Am I going to miss the meeting of my global team? I used to fly to it, but now am I going to miss it? Am I going to sleep through it?

And lots of leaders started being on calls at all hours. And I heard people say like: he never misses a call now, or her door is always available to us 24/7. And I thought: Oh, it sounds nice, but it’s not nice at all. And the thing that you’re modelling is actually: I’m not taking care of myself.

And leaders need to model: I am taking care of myself. I am setting myself up to sleep because I understand that if I don’t sleep, my brain actually does not function in a way that’s conducive to helping me solve the complex challenges that are given to me.

And so prioritizing sleep during the day and letting people know I can’t go to meetings at 1:00 a.m.. People in my firm know I’m not on the phone after nine. Like I just can’t do it, I just can’t. I’m not smart, I’m not capable. And I get so activated after being on a call that I can’t sleep for a while afterwards. I just can’t do it. And so that’s just what it is. And…

Denver: I think nine o’clock is pretty good.

Jennifer: That’s just what it is.

Denver: You know what I mean? But you know what, I think a lot of what you’re saying there too though is having people to let go of their own identity because my identity is: I’m a warrior. My identity is I’m a 24/7 man, and I’m always available and stuff like that, and I get frozen. I think like in the bell jar type of thing, you get frozen. It’s like, how do I let go of that? Because that’s who people look at me as. This is the guy who’s: You can count on him seven days a week, and boy, who will I be if I am not that?

Jennifer: I think this question of: How do our identities evolve in order to handle these changes is a fundamental question. How can we keep ourselves growing and changing and understanding? Yes, for me to be able to be there for you, I actually need to prime who I am and what my capabilities are.

And the more research we did for this book, the more we saw: we can create the conditions for ourselves and others to handle things that they right now think they can’t handle. We just need to do it on purpose.

Denver: Yeah, intentionally. Okay. So you got a complex situation here that you’ve put on me and I’m trying to face, but you know what I do? I have to sort things out, and I have to really look at the facts here. And I’ve got to take the emotions… because I’m pretty emotionally charged about this, and I’ve got to get that out of the system and put it to the side and really focus on the facts. That ain’t such a good idea, is it?

Jennifer: Love it, Denver. I love it. I love it. Because I’ve heard so many people say that, right? I hear this all the time. All the time.

Denver: My whole life. Yeah. I keep my emotions when I go through the front door of the building.

Jennifer: That’s right.

Denver: My emotions.

Jennifer: Leave your emotions outside.

Denver: I keep them outside. There’s no place in the office for those.

Jennifer: Leave it outside. No place for that. The more I study complexity and complex human systems: emotions are facts in complex human systems. I’ve had leaders say to me, I don’t understand why people are so agitated about that. Only 1% of the workforce is losing their jobs. The other 99%, they can just put their anxiety down and just go back to work… business as usual.

It’s like, okay, that would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. When people are losing their jobs, everybody gets anxious. Am I next? You can say it’s 1% now, but am I going to be in the next 1%? People have feelings about this, and if we pretend that the feelings don’t exist, then we can’t see the culture, we can’t see the human interactions, and therefore we can’t actually shape it. We can’t shape what we can’t see.

And so the understanding that emotions are key facts in a social human system is vital. And then being able to recognize nobody in the history of humanity has ever left their emotions at the door, right?

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: Our emotions go with us through all the doors. We can leave our understanding of our emotions. We can be numb to our emotions. We can pretend we don’t have them, but the human body is an emotions-haver. Like this is one of the ways we just inhabit the world. We have emotions all the time. The question again is: Do we notice them, and can we do something about it?

Denver: Well, it’s a little bit of what you’re talking about a leader. It’s never the message they delivered, it’s the message that was heard.

Jennifer: That’s right.

Denver: And even if they heard it wrong, it really doesn’t make much difference. That’s what they heard. And in terms of emotions being facts, I can say this in America, and I’m sure you could probably say it in France or in England as well: Emotions are more important than facts.

I mean, just look at our political system. I mean, facts are like nothing, it’s the way people feel. And that’s pretty much the game that we’re in right now. So you said a moment ago: we can create positive emotions. How could I go about trying to create positive emotions?

Jennifer: Well, so I think it’s really cool to think about our emotions, not as the weather. Like the weather just happens to us, but emotions, we participate in the happening. We can’t control them all. I’m not talking about controlling your emotions. I had a leader who once said to me,” Jennifer, my team doesn’t like it because like I get pissed off when they have stupid ideas or when they’re wasting my time.”

“And I show my anger, my face shows anger, and my voice shows anger and I don’t like that. Can you help me not show anger?” And I said, “How about we do something else as opposed to figuring out how to lie with your face? How about if we learn how not to feel angry so much?

Denver: Root cause.

Jennifer: How about if we go for that? And so we’ve picked in this book, we’ve picked some of the practices that can actually reshape our emotions, like even something as simple as laughter. Laughter changes the chemicals that course through our veins. The hormones that course through our veins– laughter changes them. Laughter is a gettable thing.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: We can go after it. We can create the conditions for more of it in our lives. We can create the conditions for more of it in our workplaces, in our families, in our friendships. We can create those conditions, and then we can have more laughter, which makes for a better body, and it also makes for an easier emotional path.

“So laughter is a signal of connection and trust. It means I want you to feel comfortable around me, and I want to feel comfortable about you. We don’t have that thought, we just laugh, but we laugh around people we’re comfortable with, and we become comfortable with people we laugh with.”

Denver: Yeah, people that I don’t have good relationships, I don’t laugh with them much. And people that I’ve got great relationships with… and it also seems so context-dependent because things that are not that funny, if you’re with the right group of people, you’ve got milk coming out of your nose, you’re laughing so much.

Jennifer: It’s hilarious. It’s hilarious.

Denver: It’s hilarious. And it’s really, it’s a glue that kind of holds you together, and you find goofy things funny that you would… everybody else would find, I guess, to be goofy.

Jennifer: So this is really important. It’s a complex social system. In complexity, you can’t tell what’s the cause and what’s the effect. So, are your friends laughing because they are connected, or are they connected because they are laughing?

So laughter is a signal of connection and trust. It means I want you to feel comfortable around me, and I want to feel comfortable about you. We don’t have that thought, we just laugh, but we laugh around people we’re comfortable with, and we become comfortable with people we laugh with.

Denver: Absolutely.

Jennifer: So the question then becomes: How could you give your laughter as a gift? How could you understand laughter as a social tool that you would offer to others, and find things a little funnier? And can you try, and I’m not talking about like finding everything hysterical, I’m saying: Could you dial it up 2%? 2%…

Denver: It made me laugh. See, you just made me laugh.

Jennifer: …is going to change your life.

Denver: That’s good.

Jennifer: See, right there. Right there.

Denver: There you go. Well, let’s get to the other part of your book, too, your subtitle, Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. So what’s the role of leadership in complex organizations? And what should a leader be doing to not only thrive themselves, but to help their organizations thrive?

Jennifer: So many leaders follow their instincts. Our instincts when we’re faced with complexity, it’s really getting complex as the world has gotten really complex, is: we feel stressed. We narrow our focus, we try to control things. These are the wrong responses, but this is what our body gives us. This is what our body gives us.

And so leaders have to know that as that happens to them, they pass that like a communicative disease through the organization. Faster than COVID could race through an organization, the leader’s stress can race through an organization. And as they use these geniuses, they also communicate new things. People talk about: Ooh, the feel of that office was great, or the feel of that office was awful. We have language for this even though we don’t really know what that is.

Leaders can work to create the feel of something by paying attention to things like: How are we grateful together? How are we connected to each other? Am I creating the conditions for us to be connected to each other, for us to know each other as human beings? Am I doing that? That, I think, is what leading and complexity requires.

Denver: Yeah. And changing the conditions. While it’s tough, it’s not that tough. I mean, it’s…

Jennifer: That’s exactly right.

Denver: And I guess what you’re saying, the other takeaway from the book for me was that leadership skill, a key one– is you have to know how to hack your own nervous system. And that is something which I don’t think many leaders, if any, to speak of, have really consciously thought about, and not just for yourself, but for everyone.

Jennifer: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. We’re mammals, so our nervous systems are actually entwined. We are designed to signal threat and signal calmness through the nervous systems, particularly dealing with status.

So if somebody with status feels anxious, we should all start to feel anxious because we all need to be activated as a community to move away from the threat. This is fine if the threat is coming at us in the form of  some charging lion. Awful if the threat is coming at us in the form of a tough quarter that we need to innovate our way out of.

And so how can leaders understand: a part of my job is managing my nervous system. It’s not wellness. It’s not nice to have. It’s not a thing that we ought to include as a perk. That these things are the price of admission in a complex world. It is our mandatory first order of business, is checking out our own systems because we will create havoc around us if we do not do that.

Denver: When I started to read your book, I kind of expected that complexity of the modern world had pretty much passed us by. And we, because of our history, we’re not going to be able to catch up. But I was delightfully surprised to see that this was really a very, very positive and hopeful book, correct?

Jennifer: It is. This research actually made me really hopeful. I’m a developmentalist, so I’ve been looking at kind of long-scale change. How do we grow over years and decades? This has been the focus of my career.

This book took me into: How do we change over the course of minutes and hours? And actually there’s quite a lot to be done that changes us over minutes and hours that can reshape the conditions for, and in, and around us, …and for, and in, and around others so that they can develop faster over years and decades.

And I think that’s great news. I think it’s particularly good news because complexity is right now. We don’t have decades to grow better able to handle it. We have to deal with it today.

Denver: Yeah. Well, this conversation has changed me in minutes, and I’m really thankful for that. The name of the book is Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. It’ll help transform the anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelm that complexity creates, and help create conditions for you and those around you to flourish.

I want to thank you, Jennifer, so much for being here today. It’s such a delight to have you on the show.

Jennifer: Thanks so much, Denver. Great to see you again.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on TwitterInstagram, and on Facebook.


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