Leadership Library Review — Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity

April 2019

Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger (Stanford, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

This is a deceptively slim volume that offers powerful tools.  Jennifer Garvey Berger – one of my favorite thought leaders at the intersections of adult development theory, leadership and organizational effectiveness – has published a clever new book about how five “quirks” in our thinking become traps when we’re navigating complexity.  The five quirks each get a chapter of their own:

  • Trapped by Simple Stories: Your Desire for a Simple Story Blinds You to a Real One
  • Trapped by Rightness: Just Because It FeelsRight Doesn’t Mean It IsRight
  • Trapped by Agreement: Longing for Alignment Robs You of Good Ideas
  • Trapped by Control: Trying to Take Charge Strips You of Influence
  • Trapped by Ego: Shackled to Who You Are Now, You Can’t Reach for Who You’ll Be Next

While they are all sharp and insightful chapters with very accessible and actionable “keys to unlock” each mindtrap, the chapter that personally affected me the most was the final one on how to “build a ladder” of habits to escape the mindtraps.

Why do I like it?

As in Berger’s last book (with Keith Johnston), Simple Habits for Complex Times, there is a well-scripted fictional story that follows a few main characters through the chapters to illustrate the five mindtraps. The story is extremely helpful to understanding the traps, how to recognize them in your own day-to-day conversations at work and at home, and what it looks like to get past them. Also, in the chapters’ main discussions of the mindtraps, Berger offers “key” questions and habits for unlocking yourself.  E.g., the key questions when you’re trapped by rightness are two of what Berger refers to as the “most transformative” in her entire career-long collection of questions: What do I believe? and How could I be wrong? (pp. 52-54).

As I mentioned above, I also really like the chapter on how to build a ladder up and out of the mindtraps.  It starts with a handy chart summarizing the mindtraps and the key questions and habits, then goes on to describe the four rungs of the ladder: connecting to purpose, connecting to your body, connecting to your emotions, and connecting to compassion for yourself and others.  All of them, in my view, are simple and practical forms of mindfulness that any leader – any person– would benefit from adopting.

In what situations would this be useful?

I’m not surprised that the first rung of the ladder you can build to escape the mindtraps is connecting to purpose.  Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps would be useful to all leaders for whom any of the above-listed mindtraps resonate, but it might be especially useful for leaders who feel confused about or distant from their guiding purpose.  Berger cites research showing that having a greater purpose in life actually lowers one’s mortality, and that it’s not achieving your purpose but pursuing it that matters most.  A purpose is different from a goal, and is not about the traps of fame or ego; as Berger writes on page 118, “’Make partner by thirty-one’ is a goal. ‘Create artistic experiences that elevate people from their daily existence and bring them to more joy and compassion’ is a purpose.”  She goes on to share a helpful case example that parses these distinctions, and to offer a simple practice to help you identify the seeds of your own purpose. This isn’t to say that the other rungs of the ladder – i.e. the other connections – aren’t incredibly important and useful, but I share Berger’s instinct to start with purpose, perhaps as the foundational one.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

While it focuses primarily on the mindtrap of “simple stories,” there is a wonderful interview of Jennifer Garvey Berger about this book and the mindtraps on Amiel Handelsman’s podcast, The Amiel Show.

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2 Responses to Leadership Library Review — Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity

  1. Pingback: Leadership Library Review: “Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite” | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

  2. Pingback: Understanding Implicit (Unconscious) Bias | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

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