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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Leadership Library Review — Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most

March 2019

Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most

by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams (Wiley, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

Anderson (creator of the Leadership Circle Profile™ or LCP) and Adams argue that transformational organizational growth – the ability to be agile, thrive and continually reinvent – in any industry these days requires transforming ourselves by scaling our leadership.  “Leadership,” they write, “is scaling the capacity and capability of others and the organization to create outcomes that matter most” (p. 23).  The authors posit that a majority of leaders are in over their heads, limited by a developmental mismatch between the leaders’ individual capacities for complexity and the complexity of their job roles.  In an increasingly disruptive, chaotic and VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, Anderson and Adams declare “[i]t is a business imperative today that we transcend our current level of leadership” (p. 8; authors’ emphasis).  But how?

Why do I like it?

I like that the book so forcefully and yet compassionately takes on the ambitious task of describing exactly how Anderson and Adams recommend we transcend our current level of leadership.  (In addition to the the persuasive data, there is a meaty chapter devoted to “Practices that Transform Leadership.”)  Also, I share the authors’ overall approach to comprehending the self-development required for effective leadership as a spiritual journey – a “spiritual boot camp,” or “crucible.”  Based on their research into their extensive database of senior leaders providing 360-degree written feedback to other senior leaders, Anderson and Adams uncover six necessary “conditions” for scaling leadership.  They are: Creative Leadership (versus Reactive, in the LCP); Deep Relationship; Radically Human (a type of learning-oriented vulnerability represented in the Leadership Circle Profile by the competencies of Self-Awareness and Authenticity); Systems Awareness; Purposeful Achievement; and Generative Tension.

I imagine that most of the authors’ information regarding the six conditions – at least to those of us who study leadership – is unsurprising.  What intrigued me was what surprised them!  Anderson and Adams expected more of a focus on Achieving Results (an LCP competency), but when they looked at the written data, the results were “skewed toward relationship, suggesting that effective leadership is about leading people.  When you combine these people strengths with the other High-Creative endorsed strengths of passion, vision, authenticity, and a calm approachable presence, you have a recipe for creating the conditions for scaling leadership” (p. 45; authors’ emphases).

In what situations would this be useful?

For anyone who has read Mastering Leadership and/or engaged in the LCP 360 process, Scaling Leadership takes the model to a provocative, inspiring, higher level with its stunning meta-analysis.  That said, you don’t need to be familiar with these other resources in order to use the powerful information in this book.

Perhaps Scaling Leadership would be especially useful and encouraging to women leaders.  As a leadership development professional who coaches a lot of women leaders, I was gratified that Anderson and Adams highlighted the fact that despite being proportionally fewer, the women in their study were rated as more effective (by 15 to 20 percentile points more Creative and less Reactive) than the men (p. 45).  After another way of slicing their data, the authors concluded, “women are more effective because they lead more relationally. Doing so requires a high degree of self-awareness and authenticity” (p. 46; authors’ emphasis).  Notably, these findings bolster Zenger & Folkman’s landmark research summarized in this Business Insider article, “Why Women Leaders Are More Effective Leaders Than Men.”  I agree with Anderson and Adams that the primary reason more women aren’t in more senior roles “is because of systemic bias created and maintained by a male-dominated power structure” (48).

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more about adult development theory (also known as vertical development, ego development or consciousness development) and the “developmental gap” as described in Scaling Leadership, see this white paper by Bob Anderson.  To go directly to Robert Kegan’s work, my favorite book of his is Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Harvard, 2009) which he co-authored with Lisa Laskow Lahey.  My current go-to leadership book on what a developmentally conscious organization looks like and runs like in practical terms – especially in the nonprofit sector – is Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnstone.

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Leadership Library Review — Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work

February 2019

Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work by Brene Brown (Random House, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

Brown’s Dare to Lead builds on her extraordinary professional expertise studying vulnerability, shame, courage and empathy in order to conduct research – including 150 global C-suite leaders and collections of data from her various business projects – on what it takes to be a “daring leader.”  In a two-page spread (pp. 76-77) Brown identifies sixteen characteristics of Armored Leadership versus Daring Leadership (e.g., the first one listed: “Driving perfectionism and fostering fear of failure” versus “Modeling and encouraging healthy striving, empathy and self-compassion”).

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s focus on how a “daring leader” must have the courage to be vulnerable and take risks (especially in the areas of communication, integrity and accountability); to create conditions that foster the growth of other leaders; and to develop the spaciousness to listen for and act upon one’s own wisdom.  On page 271, Brown writes:

If you asked me to boil down everything I’ve learned from this research, I would tell you these three things:

  1. The level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission.
  2. The greatest challenge in developing brave leaders is helping them acknowledge and answer their personal call to courage. […]
  3. We fail the minute we let someone else define success for us. […]

One of my interpretations of what Brown discovers is that a certain minimum degree of capacity for complexity (known in adult development theory by terms such as self-authoring or self-determining) in leaders is necessary for organizations to thrive amidst the crushing pace of change that prevails in today’s global dynamics.

In what situations would this be useful?

The heart of Dare to Lead is also the largest part of the book, entitled “Rumbling with Vulnerability.”  This section has segment headings like “The Call to Courage,” “Shame and Empathy,” and “Curiosity and Grounded Confidence.”  If any of the key words in those headings tickles, frightens, disgusts, intrigues or triggers you, then I suspect this book would be a useful companion on your leadership journey!

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

The book I happened to review last month, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, would be a nice pairing in the sense that – to my mind – Brown’s 16 traits of “daring leaders” resonate with the 15 commitments.  They also echo the definitions of creative competencies and reactive tendencies in Bob Anderson’s Mastering Leadership, which is the case he makes for the Leadership Circle Profile (a 360-degree assessment of which Anderson is an architect).  The Leadership Circle Profile intentionally incorporates Robert Kegan’s adult development theory as described in this white paper, also by Anderson.

Note: In my opinion, if you read Dare to Lead, you can skip two of Brene Brown’s previous volumes, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.  A powerful discussion of another of Brown’s books that has provocative implications for leadership, Braving the Wilderness, unfolds in this interview of Brown by Krista Tippett for “On Being.”

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Leadership Library Review: The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership

January 2019

The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp (Chapman, Dethmer & Klemp, 2014)

What are the big take-aways?

The authors posit that there are two “locations” of leadership consciousness: above the line (open, curious and committed to learning) and below the line (closed, defensive and committed to being right).  “As a regular practice,” write the authors on page 43, “conscious leaders notice when they are below the line and choose to shift to above the line.”

Leaders do this by consistently checking in on their “Way of Leading”: To Me, By Me, Through Me and As Me.  In the chapter “Leading from Above the Line,” the authors are clear that these Ways of Leading are four ever-changing states of being, not successive or cumulative developmental stages, and that it is possible to toggle among them – particularly To Me, By Me, Through Me (because As Me is a rarer state of unity/oneness, interconnectedness and peace) – in short periods of time, like hours or minutes. The authors argue that the most key, common and needed shift in a leader, a team, an organization, or even the world at any given moment is the Way-of-Leading shift from To Me (a victim posture) to By Me (a creator posture). Awareness of the line is “conscious leadership,” which the 15 commitments further define and support.

Why do I like it?

I like that “Taking Radical Responsibility,” along with “Learning Through Curiosity,” is a foundational commitment of conscious leadership.  (The other thirteen can be found here.)  Although conscious leadership is not an adult development framework like Susanne Cook-Greuter’s or Robert Kegan’s – and it may share more similarities to growth mindset research than to any theory of psychological development – in my view the authors’ stance regarding why conscious leadership is so effective hinges upon an ability to take the kind of responsibility for one’s learning and leading that might also be described as self-determining.  (In other words, I wonder whether a leader who is very mindful of the line, skillfully interrupts inevitable drifts below the line, and whose Way of Leading is at least in the By Me state most of the time, might correspond to certain stages of adult development?  Just a question to play with…)

In what situations would this be useful? 

This book would be probably most useful to you if the concept of conscious leadership intrigues you, and/or resonates with what you’re currently experiencing (e.g., something is impeding your effectiveness, you’re not sure what it is, and you’re truly open to finding out).  It could also be a helpful resource if you don’t “get” the concept of conscious leadership as I attempted to outline it above, but nonetheless know in your heart that you’re ready to do whatever it takes to bring more flexibility, authenticity, and ease to your leadership – as well as abundance to your organization – and could benefit from a coherent structure to help you effectuate those changes. The book makes these complex ideas seem quite straightforward.  For just one example, the authors ask on page 52, “What if there is no way the world should be and no way the world shouldn’t be?”  They go on to explain (page 53):

[T]he first step in taking responsibility is to shift from believing that the world should be a particular way to believing that the world just shows up. Second, we need to shift from rigidity, closed-mindedness, and self-righteousness to curiosity, learning, and wonder (which naturally occurs once our beliefs change).  All drama in leadership and life is caused by the need to be right.  Letting go of that need is a radical shift all great leaders make.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For an excellent three-and-a-half-minute graphical depiction of the authors’ “above the line and below the line” idea, see this video on YouTube.  For an astute summary of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, on the neuroscience of transforming a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, see this Brain Pickings blog post by Maria Popova.

There are also several books and articles I’ve reviewed in the Leadership Library that would pair well with The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.  A dense but flabbergasting argument for love, oneness, connection and abundance as the nature of the universe is made by Joseph Jaworski in Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation.  For more on the “business case” for love, see Bob Anderson’s Mastering Leadership, and consider taking The Leadership Circle Profile self-assessment or ideally the 360-degree assessment, of which Anderson is an architect.  The Leadership Circle Profile – which also draws a significant line (between reactive tendencies below, and creative competencies above) – intentionally incorporates Robert Kegan’s adult development theory as described in this white paper, also by Anderson.

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Leadership Library Review: The Empathy Effect

December 2018

The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess, MD (Sounds True, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

In this comprehensive, scientific and complex yet very accessible study of empathy, Riess discusses why this form of emotional connection is critical to human survival. Empathy is both innate and can be learned and cultivated, for which Riess offers the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. model (Eye contact, Muscles of facial expression, Posture, Affect, Tone, Hearing the whole person, and Your response).  There is an entire chapter devoted to “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy,” which is the focus of this Leadership Library Review.

The leadership take-away (p. 148):

We often cite intelligence, instincts, and expertise when describing someone we consider to be a great leader, but great leaders are exquisitely attuned to others’ emotions and are experts at regulating their own.  CEOs and executives are often lauded for their fierce tenacity and decisive actions, politicians for their hard-line thinking, entrepreneurs for their innovative, competitive natures.  But these qualities are only part of the story of leadership.  Neurobiology seems to predispose us to a preference for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion. [Emphasis mine.]

Why do I like it?

I like that Riess is so strong and persuasive in arguing the case for empathy as central to effective leadership.  In easily understandable terms, Riess explains how, neurologically, emotional judgment and group coordination – two keys to transformational leadership – actually works chemically and structurally.  She also explores the psychology of workplace empathy in the context of attachment theory (i.e., how workplace leadership and power dynamics may be profoundly affected by individuals’ childhood experiences of authority), and her own research debunking the widespread belief that nice leaders are perceived as less competent.

For me, the most fascinating piece of the chapter on “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy” is Riess’s incisive take on the 2016 presidential election.  She convincingly contends that while Trump utilized a form of faux empathy to reach out to voters from some socio-economic groups whom he has a known record of actually exploiting, Clinton (to some extent, following on Obama’s notorious aloofness) demonstrated a total lack of empathy by using devastating language – such as “a basket of deplorables” – to describe her opponent’s followers.

In what situations would this be useful?

If you’re generally interested in the topics of empathy, compassion and self-compassion, I highly recommend this book.  For leaders, I especially recommend this book if you know for yourself – or if you are receiving feedback – that you have difficulty relating emotionally to, communicating with, or motivating other people.  This book is full of tips and techniques for developing and showing empathy, and for connecting authentically in person and via digital communication. And for those of you who need it, it’s all backed up with the latest in neuroscientific research.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

As regular readers of this blog know by now, my go-to resource on the topics of empathy, compassion, self-compassion, gratitude and other elements of wellness is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley. The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.

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Leadership Library Review: “The Business Case for Curiosity”

November 2018

“The Business Case for Curiosity” by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review,September/October 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

Two things struck me in this eye-opening article on the benefits to businesses and their leaders of intentionally fostering curiosity (defined here as “the impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities”).  First, as the author – behavioral scientist Francesca Gino – asserts, “curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought.” Second, Gino notes that “although leaders might saythey treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.”

Both of these findings rang true to me on experiential and intuitive levels but I am delighted that they are now beginning to be investigated and even measured scientifically.

Why do I like it?

Gino’s research is modest but compelling.  It demonstrates that:

cultivating [curiosity] at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.

I like that this is being proven out because, as a leadership development specialist (and as an entrepreneur myself, married to an artist), I can attest anecdotally to the role of curiosity in how organizations effectively engage with complexity and in how generative individuals take constructive risks.

I also like that the article discusses the specific benefits of curiosity (fewer decision-making errors, more innovation, reduced group conflict, and better communication including better team performance) while identifying two primary barriers to curiosity: leaders “have the wrong mindset” about exploration as more costly than it is, and they “seek efficiency to the detriment” of exploration, despite the lip-service they may pay to it.

In what situations would this be useful?

Gino’s research finds something that contains a somewhat counter-intuitive presumption: “when we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively.”  In other words, many of us know from our own life experiences that our curiosity often goes right out the window when we are under stress; the truth of this dynamic is so well- and widely-understood that it is regularly discussed in business periodicals articles like this one in Forbes.

However, there is more to it, according to Gino: i.e., if we can sustain our curiosity through a challenging time, we will be more creative.  What may seem counter-intuitive to many people in this finding is that curiosity can even exist in tough circumstances.  Gino describes a number of practices that leaders can adopt that will help them hire for curiosity, as well as intentionally cultivate it throughout an organization by embracing a learning mindset.  (The learning mindset is also known as the “growth mindset” popularized in recent years by Carol Dweck, whose work is explained elegantly by Maria Popova here in Brain Pickings.)

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are two other illuminating articles in the same HBR “package” with Gino’s that are of course, great pairings (“From Curious to Competent” by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Aramaki; and “The Five Dimensions of Curiosity” by Todd B. Kashdan, David J. Disabato, Fallon R. Goodman and Carl Naughton).

Over the years I have recommended several other resources about curiosity in my Leadership Library blog, including posts reviewing Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, Ad Reinhardt’s abstract painting, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, and Design Thinking in general.  Speaking of the Leadership Library, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the primary force that energizes this blog itself and defines my process for choosing resources to review in it is…(tum-ta-da-dum)…curiosity!

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Leadership Library Review: The Senegalese “Thinker”

October 2018

The Senegalese “Thinker”

Senegalese Thinker (1)What are the big take-aways?

Here is a photo of the little wooden “Thinker” carving that my husband Chris and I brought back from our trip to Senegal last month:

Why do I like it?

I was in Senegal for the second week of September to facilitate a two-day leadership training for the West Africa regional team (photo here) of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization.  Before the training began, Chris and I had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of days of sight-seeing and to learn a bit about Senegalese history, culture and art.

In addition to the ubiquitous renderings of the baobab trees that serve as a national symbol of Senegal (and whose plight was just covered in thisNew York Timesarticle), another common representation of the country is its unique stylization of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”  (The inspiration from Robin is unsurprising, as Senegal was colonized by the French from the middle of the last millennium until it gained independence in 1960.)  I was immediately drawn to the Senegalese “Thinker” carving’s elegant meditative pose, but what I like most about it is that the figure is variously described as a king engaged in an internal struggle, a grandfather ruminating upon the fate of his ancestors and their offspring in the diaspora, and as an embodiment of the West African ideal of leadership: deliberative, mindful and non-reactive.

In what situations would this be useful?

I find the “Thinker’s” calmness in the face of difficulty (s/he looks deeply torn to me) reassuring and provocative.  How refreshing it is in this grim era of hyper-partisan hysteria in the West – with no dearth of prominent leaders exemplifying the mayhem caused by greedy, reactive and self-serving rushes to judgment – to see leadership excellence construed as mindful contemplation!  How ironic and perfect, it seems to me, that I found this representation in Africa. Time means something different on that continent, where all of humanity originated millions of years ago.

I will use my “Thinker” as a continual reminder of the value of ripening to ethical leadership and decision-making.  By ripening, I mean the flow of wisdom that only emerges from the passage of time in a state of paradoxically active receptivity.  Personally, I work on developing active receptivity in my mindfulness practice.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

It’s impossible to summarize the dazzling array of resources arising from the efflorescence of research on mindfulness and related forms of moment-to-moment awareness.  (I’ve written about some of them previously in the Leadership Library, most recently last March.) My favorite hub for information in this overall area is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley, which focuses on the scientific exploration of well-being.  The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.  I recommend signing up for the GGSC’s weekly news magazine, which recently featured an article on “The Myths of Mindfulness.”

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