Leadership Library Review: “Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin (Stanford, 2022)

September 2022

It turns out that when we need to handle complexity the most, we often are least able to…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.

– Unleash Your Complexity Genius (pp. 2-3)

Beyond Complicated

Unleash Your Complexity Genius is anchored in theorist Dave Snowden’s conceptualization of complicated problems versus complex challenges.  As I understand it, the primary distinction between the two is that complicated problems have identifiable “root causes” that knowledge can fix, whereas complex challenges are the unpredictable by-products of so many factors within the system that produced them that cause-and-effect is no longer a useful analysis.  Therefore, in complexity there is – by definition – no certain approach to the uncertainty.  As the authors say on page 9, “if you get lulled into believing that you can use your experience and expertise to predict and control complex things, you’re likely in trouble…You need all the creativity, agility pattern-recognition, experimentation and learning you can muster when you’re dealing with complexity.”   And we also need to let go of the illusion of control.  Berger and Coughlin offer many do-able, effective approaches for helping ourselves make these shifts.


This slim but potent volume is full of GEMs (Genius Engagement Moves), which are practices for intentionally accessing the best that our own nervous systems naturally have to offer us as leaders in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable times.  It starts with emphasizing the inner work of cultivating present-moment awareness (“the genius of noticing”), and then builds on that to explain how we can train ourselves – like exercise – for our fitness at handling complexity with the GEMs of breathing, moving and sleeping.  (The difficult irony at play here is that, when it detects a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous system causes us to feel the urge to take action, when often we are actually better served by slowing down and switching on the restorative gifts of the parasympathetic nervous system.)  The book goes on to use research, as well as dialogue between relatable fictional characters, to demonstrate how leaders can then create conditions for flourishing in complexity at the intersections of our personal and professional lives.  These three big “geniuses” are: utilizing experimentation to navigate change, understanding how we construct our emotions (and therefore how we can construct new ones) to transform overwhelm into thriving, and harnessing the “the genius of loving” to value human connection over more traditional values such as competence (which are more suited to complicated problems than complex challenges).

Love and Connection

One of my favorite bits in this cutting-edge book is its calling-out and calling-in “the genius of loving.”  Not many leadership and management books do this yet, but we will be seeing it more and more, because the deep truth at the heart of all human endeavor – including in every business sector and disciplinary field – is that we are made for love, and everything in the universe is interconnected.  When we are able to inhabit this truth in healthy, whole and functional ways, nearly anything is possible. 

The practical, counter-cultural implication of this for leaders is observed by Berger and Coughlin on page 112: “One of the most surprising ideas that arises from complexity is that in a complex system, the thing that makes the biggest difference is the number and nature of connections among individuals rather than the excellence of any particular individual.  Take that in for a moment.”  In light of this remarkable statement, the authors offer several habits, workplace strategies and thought experiments for: emphasizing our full humanity in all the overlapping dimensions of our lives, breaking down the alienation caused by competition and the drive for unattainable perfection, and invoking the extraordinary power of gratitude (which they role-model beautifully in their equivalent of an afterword).  Yes, yes, yes.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Unleash Your Complexity Genius dovetails nicely with the book I reviewed last month, Leader as Healer by Nicholas Janni, as well as my recent reflections on the VUCA and BANI world we’re living in, and the value of not-knowing in leadership.  For more on the somatics of leadership and change, I recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body Is Your Brain and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017).  For coaches interested in a deeper dive into how to leverage the miraculous capacities of the human nervous system in our work, see Richard Boyatzis’s Helping People Change (Harvard, 2019).

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2 Responses to Leadership Library Review: “Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin (Stanford, 2022)

  1. Pingback: Leadership, Ubuntu and Evolving the WEIRD Mindset | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

  2. Pingback: Leadership and Laughter | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

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