You know those days: you have planned your schedule precariously, one thing hanging off of the next, like a child’s balancing game. Then something unexpected happens—you get a call from school that your daughter is sick, you get a ping from a colleague that a major customer is about to make an announcement, your boss walks in with a troubled look on her face. And you think: I simply cannot handle one more thing that is changing or uncertain or difficult on this day—or this week or this month.
And yet the world keeps throwing these things at us. Whether we think we can handle them or not, they come, and they come.
We’re here to help. We can’t do much to shape what the world throws at you, but one of the things we’ve learned in our twenty-five years of helping leaders manage difficult situations is that we can do very much to shape how we respond to what the world throws at us. In this book, we’re going to let you in on a secret: you have a genius for handling complexity.
You might feel like maybe we’re talking to someone else. You have a frustration with complexity and not a genius for it. But trust us on this one—all the research we’ve done and the thousands of leaders we’ve worked with assure us that this is in you too. The word “genius” originally described a spirit or ability that was in us from the day we are born. Our complexity genius is our birthright: the natural ease and delight with which we handle our complex, confusing, and uncertain lives.
We know this is something that humans have excelled at for as long as we have been on this planet—we know how to play and invent and learn our way into new possibilities. If we weren’t able to flourish in complexity, we wouldn’t have been able to do all the wonderful things humans have done—building thriving societies, writing novels, making vaccines for COVID-19. And this isn’t just a modern or just a COVID-era capability. There are complex adaptive ideas woven through our most ancient texts. Humans have been accessing their complexity genius for millennia (which shows that these are both ancient ideas and not as automatic as we might wish).
We understand that it doesn’t always feel like you have a complexity genius. That’s because alongside your genius for handling complexity, you—like the rest of us—have a rather unsettling human quirk. It turns out that when we need to handle complexity the most, we often are least able to. Here’s why. Complexity tends to trigger us, to make us anxious or afraid or overwhelmed. When this happens, our nervous system creates a whole series of shifts in our body that lead to reactivity and oversimplification. So we have a funny paradox woven right into our humanity: when we are calm, we are able to handle complexity better with play and collaboration and co-creation. But complexity kills the calm, making us less able to handle these things.
We two have been puzzling about this conundrum in one way or another for the last twenty years or so. We first met as partners in a small consulting firm, both with little children of our own. Our lives were complex and overwhelming, and we were struggling to stay on top of things. We studied and taught and used the complexity and adult development ideas that had brought us together, and we learned. Over the years, Jennifer has gotten more and more into the world of outer complexity: What is it about the way complex systems work that is so counterintuitive for us? Over the years, Carolyn has gotten more and more into the world of the body: What is it about how we manage our own bodily reactions that makes us more fit to handle the complex world? The ideas and practices that come together in this book have transformed our lives and have transformed the lives of the thousands of leaders with whom we and our colleagues have worked. And now we’re hoping they’ll help you too.
Here’s what we’ll explore together: What is already inside us that makes us well adapted to handling complexity, and how can we dial that up when we need it the most? Or, to put it another way: What is our complexity genius and how do we best make use of it for ourselves and others?
So come along with us. We’ll look inside ourselves and understand a little about our biology to make sense of the way our bodies automatically handle complexity. We’ll look outside ourselves at some of the most important complexity principles, and we’ll figure out what the complex world is demanding of us. And we’ll look for the particular moves we can make to switch our natural inclinations away from our unhelpful autopilot and back into our helpful genius.
The best news of all is that the practices that bring out our complexity genius are delightful. They are some of the great joys of being human: noticing, breathing, moving, sleeping, experimenting, laughing, wondering, and loving. We’ll see how these are perfectly aligned with what the world needs from us. And we’ll offer you some practices—Genius Engagement Moves (GEMs)—that help us amplify the genius that is our birthright. Those GEMs build on each other as the book progresses, so the ones toward the end use all that we’ve learned—like an exercise circuit for our bodies to become more fit to handle complexity with more ease and grace than you might have imagined possible.
Along the way, you’ll have the company of a few companions you’ll recognize from Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps1 if you’ve read that (no worries if you haven’t—you’ll probably recognize them from your own lives anyway). Their lives have changed enormously since that book was published, and they’re just trying to keep up as well.2
The notions in this book are not shiny new ideas that emerge from the latest research and send us in utterly novel directions. These ideas have been woven into human societies for tens of thousands of years. Want to be more creative, more connected? Dance, feel into wonder, come to stillness with your breath. Love one another well. We offer them not because they’re new but because we often lose them in the tumult of our current lives. When the fog of complexity is so thick that we lose our way, when we lose even our own best versions of ourselves, these ideas are a lifeline to bring us back to our natural giftedness, back to the fullness of our ability to thrive in this world. Pour a cup of tea, settle into a comfy chair, and let’s begin.
1. Jennifer Garvey Berger, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).
2. Two caveats: 1. If you hated the story in Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, we’re guessing you’ll hate it here too. Feel free to skip it altogether. 2. If you didn’t even read Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, no worries—all you need is here.