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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps by Jennifer Garvey Berger

Updated: May 16, 2021

Unlocking Leadership Mind Traps Summary

3 Big Ideas:

Book summary: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps by Jennifer Garvey Berger

  1. Our default thinking patterns often lead us incorrectly in complexity

  2. There are 5 mind traps: simple stories, rightness, agreement, control, ego.

  3. Mindfulness is the most powerful way to help you lead yourself and others effectively in complex environments


Too much agreement, while pleasant, makes us follow a narrow path rather than expanding our solution space. It makes it harder to create and pursue the wide span of options that will leave us prepared for whatever the uncertain future demands. With complexity, we need diversity of experience, approach, and ideas, and we need to learn how to harness conflict rather than push it away.
Experiment at the edges rather than at the very center of the issue. In complex systems the center is the most resistant to change, so it’s best to stay away from it.

1 Sentence Summary:

In complex environments, leaders need to find new ways to lead themselves and others. Understanding new ways to notice and escape these mind traps is a leadership superpower.


Big Ideas Expanded

Book summary: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps by Jennifer Garvey Berger

The interactions of unpredictable things create complexity

Key challenges:

  1. We evolved for a different time. A simpler, more predictable time.

  2. We use default thinking patterns that were not designed for today’s complexity.

  3. We rely on our intuition which is often wrong. The best course of action is often counter-intuitive.

  4. We are built to simplify and segment

  5. We tend to try harder rather than try something else.

  6. We feel confident when something seems obvious and logical. However, this is a dangerous sign in complex environments.

  7. We try to control what will happen next; but in complexity, there are too many interrelated parts. Control is futile.

Message for leaders:

  1. Focus on creating the right conditions in the environment for people to succeed.

  2. Increase and deepen your connections within the system. This will help you lead in complexity. The number of connections matters.

  3. In complex, fast-changing situations, we will not ever be able to agree on the one best thing, because that simply doesn’t exist.


Trapped by Simple Stories

Our desire for a simple story blinds you to a real one. Narrative Fallacy.

Simple stories dramatically limit the range of thinking and feeling about what’s possible.

Complexity requires you to look at a broad range of options, not just a narrow perspective based upon the story you have created.

Looking back at something, we can tell a coherent story about it that makes it sound inevitable and neat.

To escape we need to find our way out of our simple stories and back into our complex real ones.

Humans are wired for stories; the bad news is that our automatic stories are probably too simple for a complex world.

Simple Story Traps:

  1. looking for a beginning, middle, and end;

  2. filling in the missing pieces;

  3. assigning roles to the characters.

We fix characters in our stories: heroes and villains. It is hard to see beyond the characters we assign people. Once assigned villains may never become heroes in our eyes. Halo Effect.

Confirmation Bias – To create our simple stories, we pick and choose the data we remember, and we add in little bits of data if it makes for a better case.

“It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.” – Consistency Bias Daniel Kahneman:

Notice and become aware of your simple stores.

“Life, so full of contradictions and surprises, rarely ever makes complete sense. The pieces of the puzzle seldom fit together perfectly. When they do—beware!!!!”


Trapped by Rightness

Trapped by rightness. Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right.

We each look at the world and believe we see it as it is. – Naïve realism

Leaders often fail as they:

  1. ignore data that might show them they are wrong;

  2. don’t listen well to those around them;

  3. get trapped in a world they have created rather than the one that exists.

Many Leaders are not self-aware of their own thinking traps. They are blind to their biases.

“we have excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and we have an inability to acknowledge our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world.”Daniel Kahneman:

Experience locks us even more tightly into the trap of rightness. With experience comes an expectation on ourselves and from others that we will be right. Many experts are expected to be right.

We discard any data that might suggest we’re wrong. Confirmation Bias

We feel right even if we are wrong.

Scenario from the book:

Imagine you’re in a meeting with the executive team and you’re presenting the final recommendations of a piece of work your team has been engaged in for the last month. You’ve been over every last piece of the data and you know exactly what should be done, and now you’re just informing the team and getting their approval. A new colleague, who has joined the team since the last time you’ve presented on this topic, begins to ask questions no one has raised before.

What is your emotional reaction?

  1. Defensive but confident. You and your team are the experts. You know how to lob answers back to all these tricky questions. He’s probably just trying to make an impression on the boss.

  2. Annoyed and offended. Who does this guy think he is to march in here and waste everyone’s time with immaterial questions? He’s so arrogant to think that he could have things to add with no knowledge about this at all.

  3. Open and curious. How great that you could have thought about it so much and still have someone who had questions you hadn’t thought about before! What a helpful addition this guy will be to the senior team with such an unusual perspective and a curious mind!

We mostly listen to win. Listening to that makes you right and the other person wrong.

Listen to Learn – Holding the possibility that we might be wrong. Listening with curiosity.


Trapped by Agreement

Longing for alignment robs you of good ideas.

Connection is so important that our brains experience social pain and physical pain as nearly the same thing.

Too much agreement, while pleasant, makes us follow a narrow path rather than expanding our solution space. It makes it harder to create and pursue the wide span of options that will leave us prepared for whatever the uncertain future demands. With complexity, we need diversity of experience, approach, and ideas, and we need to learn how to harness conflict rather than push it away.

Humans are drawn to an agreement as a sense of connection. We are drawn into shallow agreements to maintain a connection. We fear rejection from our social group.

Leaders can mistakenly think agreeability is a virtue and that disagreement should be fixed with compromise.

Many leaders try to stamp out disagreements amongst teams. This creates shallow agreements. Leaders in complexity need to embrace disagreement and be comfortable with it.

Leaders in complexity should focus on the conditions that make disagreement normal and safe for all involved. This starts with the leader role modelling and welcoming people to disagree with them. Reduce fear and increase phycological safety.

High-performing organizations use “family” as the most common descriptor of their culture.

We are taught as small people that when we disagree, we should compromise. This means we are built for compromise.

In complexity, having more options is always better, because you can’t possibly know beforehand which options will actually pay off. So the urge to compromise in complexity takes you from two viable options to one potentially mediocre one.”

The keys to unlocking this mind trap are to remake what agreement means, what conflict means.

Complex situations have so many pieces and perspectives that each one of us might see a slightly different set of possibilities. Leaders should create the conditions for these dissenting, diverse thoughts to be heard.


Trapped by Control

Trying to take charge strips you of influence.

Leadership is often assumed to be “the person in control” Our books, tv shows and films often portray strong leadership as the person in control of the situation.

Trying to control everything is futile.

We have a natural tendency to locally optimise rather than look at the more uncertain, unclear bigger picture.

We measure the easy things, rather than what matters.

We have a hero basis. We assume the senior leaders have the power to make change happen. However sometimes the more senior a person’s leadership position is, the less likely she is to feel in control.

There are simply too many intersecting factors to believe that the force of a single person, no matter how effective, can control it all.

In a complex world a broad direction (like “more self-sustaining”) is way better than a narrow target (“ take over dry cleaners”) – Leadership Intent.

Leaders should open horizons to direction rather than the destination, and to influence rather than control.

Experiment at the edges rather than at the very center of the issue. In complex systems the center is the most resistant to change, so it’s best to stay away from it.

“Alter patterns, not outcomes.”

Apply systems thinking to look at the whole situation and notice patterns. Change patterns through experimentation.


Trapped by Ego

Shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach for who you’ll be next.

People have a natural tendency of “preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves.”

We believe we have changed much in the past but won’t change in the future

Everyone has a second job: most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.

Ego protection is the single biggest loss of resources that organizations suffer every day.

Leaders in complexity spend less time creating and defending a particular version of themselves and more time letting life transform them.

Coaching question to raise awareness if your ego

  1. What is at stake for me here?

  2. What is the hardest part about this?

  3. What is the best part about this?

  4. How do I know this is true?

Find your growth edge


Escaping the Mindtraps

Becoming more mindful is the most powerful way to be more self-aware of how our default thinking is helping or trapping us

Mindfulness increases connection to:

  1. Our purpose

  2. Our bodies and emotions

  3. Comparisons for ourselves and others

Connecting with our purpose

“Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older participants across the follow-up period.”

The journey is more important than the destination

“Discovering your purpose is not like finding the perfect pair of shoes”

Frederick Buechner says that your purpose, your calling, is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is a necessarily interconnected dance between what calls each of us and what the world calls for.

Finding your purpose and living toward it is as much a process of discovery as it is of creation. Create the conditions for that awareness to emerge for you, and then see if it can shape your future.

Connecting to our bodies

Our bodies keep us grounded in what is rather than allowing our minds to trap us with what might or should be.

Treat your body as a source of knowledge and support rather than the vehicle that carries you from meeting to meeting and sometimes breaks down annoyingly.

Connecting to our emotions

People who can name their emotions in nuanced ways (“ I’m anxious about this job interview but also excited and energized!”) have surprisingly better outcomes in a wide variety of places than those who lump everything together (“ I’m super nervous about this job interview!”).

They are more able to recover from setbacks, can better manage their anxiety, and handle the unexpected difficulties of life.

Emotions have shades. They are not binary. The more we can notice the emotional shades the more aware we become.

While we are on the topic of complexity

You might be interested in these 12 organizational design principles that embrace complexity

12 Organisation Design Principles That Embrace Complexity


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