Jennifer Garvey Berger believes that leadership is one of the most vital renewable resources in the world. In this topsy-turvy time, when uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are raging, we need a new form of leadership for a new era. To that end, Jennifer designs and teaches leadership programs, coaches senior leaders and their teams, and supports new ways of thinking about strategy and people. In her four highly acclaimed books, Unleash Your Complexity Genius (co-authored with Carolyn Coughlin), Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Simple Habits for Complex Times (co-authored with Keith Johnston), and Changing on the Job, Jennifer builds on deep theoretical knowledge to offer practical ways to make leaders’ organizations more successful, their work more meaningful, and their lives more gratifying. Jennifer has worked with senior leaders in the private, non-profit, and government sectors worldwide (like Novartis, Google, KPMG, Intel, Microsoft, Wikimedia, and the New Zealand Department of Conservation).
Jennifer is a co-founder and CEO of Cultivating Leadership. She has a masters and a doctorate from Harvard University. Formerly an associate professor at George Mason University, Jennifer learned about deep change more than a decade ago when she turned down the tenure offer and moved to a small seaside village in New Zealand with her husband, two kids, and the family dog. While she still considers herself a Kiwi by choice, you can find her in the French countryside, where she has bought a house with eleven friends who live in community and try to keep the dog from terrifying the cats.
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About The International Leadership Association (ILA)
About The Boler College of Business at John Carroll University
About Scott J. Allen
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Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate, and conversations-to-text do not always translate perfectly. I include it to provide you with the spirit of the conversation.
Scott Allen 0:00
Okay, everybody, thanks for checking in on the Phronesis Podcast. Today, I have a very special guest, Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger, and she is internationally recognized for her thinking and practice about the ways adults can develop new and more complex ways of thinking and acting. The founder and CEO of Cultivating Leadership, a global leadership development firm. Jennifer designs and teaches leadership programs, coaches senior teams, and supports new ways of thinking about strategy and people with clients facing these dramatic shifts in complexity, volatility, and change in their workplaces and markets. All of her four books are on Stanford University Press' top sellers of the last decade. Jennifer has a master's and a doctorate from Harvard University and has been a leadership coach, a university professor, a florist, a chief researcher, and the founder of a ‘Cookie of The Month’ business. Jennifer is an American by birth, a kiwi by choice, and now lives in the French countryside where she has brought a house with 11 friends who live in a community and try to keep the dog from terrifying the cats. (Laughs) Jennifer, okay, this is going to sound super weird right now, but I'm re-listening, rereading/listening to Animal Farm. So I'm thinking of the cats, and dogs, and horses, and hens, and sheep, and…
We have no pigs. We have none of these creatures, we do have several dogs, some of which are not cat-friendly.
Scott Allen 1:33
Thank you so much for being with me today. I really, really appreciate your time. And I was saying to you before we got on the air that your name has been mentioned so many times on this podcast by world-class scholars. And it's just so much fun to spend some time having this conversation. I think what I would love to do is maybe I would love for listeners to get to know you a little bit. And what was really the spark for you that got you interested and passionate, specifically, kind of about that adult development space? And then, maybe how that kind of parlayed into some of the leadership. Or maybe it was vice versa, maybe it was leadership that led to adult development. But I would just love to know your path.
Yeah, thank you. I have been interested in people's stories. I’m a writer, I was an English teacher, I love to read. So, all my life stories have captivated me, and particularly stories of change. How is it that change is possible? Under what circumstances is change not possible, and how difficult both pathways are in their own way? Most novels, basically all histories are stories of change. And so, when I got to graduate school, I was very interested in this question of what do we know about change? Interested in both organizational change and also individual change. When I got to Harvard, you had to choose one. You couldn't choose both. And Bob Kegan was newly the head of the department that I was just coming into, and his book, ‘In Over Our Heads,’ had rocked my world and left me believing that there were some parts of people's stories I didn't have access to and I really wanted to. And there were some parts of my own growth path that I couldn't see without him, and once I saw it, I wanted to know more. I became fascinated by adult development, which then led me into leadership because, as you know, one of the core jobs of a leader is to create the contexts where people can grow into the fullest versions of themselves. And so, you need to understand something about what that looks like to be able to do it unless you just happen to fall out of bed and get really good at it. But most of us need a little bit more support. And so, that's how my path went.
Scott Allen 4:05
When I think of your work, and again, push back if you disagree with this or this isn't how you identify, but I think you do such a beautiful job of translating. I think you do a beautiful job of taking ‘In Over Our Heads’ which for listeners, you'll feel in over your head as you're reading ‘In Over Our Heads,’ It's complex, and it's thick, and it's wonderful. But you do such a beautiful job of really taking that and, in some ways, kind of operationalizing and really translating it for a practitioner in an organization to access the content, get the spirit of it, and do the work. Would you agree with that? That's how I perceive your work, or at least one way I perceive it.
Yeah. I am in love with the act of making powerful ideas useful. It took six years to do my doctorate, and I've been studying adult development theory for the last 25 years, 26 years. I know because I was pregnant when I began, and my daughter just turned 26. And so many powerful ideas are locked up and far away from the hands of people who could really use them every day whose lives could be made better. And so, yeah, I've been on a mission to take ideas that I think are life-changing and to offer them in ways that are consumable, and maybe even enjoyably consumable, so that people can actually start to use these ideas to make their lives and the lives of others better.
Scott Allen 5:40
I want to make sure that we get to the latest book, but I would really, really like to know, and I'm sure listeners are interested as well, as some of that content has interfaced with the people; what have you learned about the content? What stands out for you? What are some lessons over the thousands of individuals and groups that you have worked with as you have operationalized it? What stands out? What are a couple of lessons?
I think my relationship to theory keeps changing. Theories are incredibly useful. Bob Keegan's teacher, Bill Perry, famously says theories are wrong in all particular cases. And to kind of hold the polarity between these theoretical patterns and also the beauty and the marvel of the individual experience has been just such an enjoyable kind of surf for me. And then, I also really love the collision of theories. I love the collision of adult development theory into complexity science and how those two kind of bash against each other. I love these questions of the body, the capacity we have to process without actually thinking at all, or noticing our thinking and what's going on there. Which gets us into this whole world of bias, embodied practices, and our nervous system. I love how that crashes into these other sets of ideas. And each of them makes it both a little bit more impossible to believe the others, and also a little bit more helpful that the others exist.
Scott Allen 7:22
That was so well said. But I agree, it's so much fun to… I was just listening to ‘The Art of The Impossible.” I don't know if you've heard of this work, Steven Kotler. And it's all about flow, and the science of flow, and getting into the neurochemistry that's happening in our bodies, and the cocktail of chemicals, whether it's the serotonin, or the dopamine, or neuro epinephrine. I have this whole world of biology and chemistry that I now need to go learn more about because I've just been introduced. But it is. There's so much to learn. And holding, like you said, some of these different ways of seeing the world and see how they can complement one another, I think it's just so much fun, that space of curiosity. And it seems to me that not only are you a wonderful translator, but you are wonderfully curious, as well, right?
I love to learn new stuff. And I can't help but learn new things. As I interact with my clients, they continually bewilder me. And my own work as one of the founders and the CEO of Cultivating Leadership, which is a very interesting firm in itself, continually bewilders me. My parenting continually bewilders me with now grown children. So, life is like a never-ending buffet of learning and possibility. And it's just...'what will I nibble on today' is the question.
Scott Allen 8:53
Well, and that's been a wonderful thing about this podcast, this project, because every week I'm having conversations with individuals with different areas of expertise. And, to your point, it's just been, in some cases, drinking from the firehose, in other cases, I'm feeling a little more comfortable in some of the conversations. But this area of what you're writing about now, this whole kind of the complexity, I've had a couple of episodes on it, Mary Uhl Bien, and another gentleman named Willie Donaldson, who's at Christopher Newport University. And it was hilarious, Jennifer. So, I’m at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. I was sitting in our beginning of the year gathering of faculty, and our provost holds up your book and said, “Oh, I was given this book to read as I took on this new position, ‘Unleashed your Complexity Genius,’” and she's an English professor. A curious title, so caught my attention, “I know her, I know that work.” So you're kind of a big deal in Cleveland, I just want you to know!
This has been my highest prize aspiration. So, now I can go have it now that I have achieved my fondest goal.
Scott Allen 10:01
(Laughs) So, I sent her a quick note, and I said, “I'm talking with Jennifer next week. She's awesome, prolific, and good work.” And so, this latest work, I have the book in front of me, it's all marked up; I want to give listeners just kind of a little bit of an overview and a highlight because you do a nice job of really taking us through some new domain. And so, let's just talk a little bit about, maybe, the genius of noticing. Would you take listeners through that a little bit?
Yeah. So, the concept of this book, my dear friend colleague, and co-founder, Carolyn Coughlin, and I got really intrigued by this question of complexity is really hard on the body, what's going on, and what can we do about it. And so, we started to inquire into the nervous system and tried to really figure out what are some of the facts we could have to pull ourselves out of the… Spoiler alert is that complexity is metabolized by our body as a threat. And then, it sends us into our threat response. And actually, humans have all kinds of resources for handling complexity, but none of them are active when we are in the threat response. So we have to find a way to get to the space where we can handle complexity. And minimally, the first, and maybe the most important, is noticing. We knew that it was the first when we wrote the book, but now that you learn so much more after writing a book than you do while writing a book because readers teach you so much. And one of the things our readers have taught us is that noticing is the act of changing. As we notice, we bring our attention to something, of course, and then we have a choice, of course, but what we attend to is so significantly what our universe is. And so, if we want to shape our universe in particular ways, attending is necessary. And our attention is grabbed so often. Each of these things we call complexity geniuses is a thing that happens automatically or a thing that we can make happen. And when it happens automatically, sometimes it's a gift, and sometimes it's whatever the opposite of a gift is, some kind of misery. When we choose it, when we do it on purpose, it's extraordinarily powerful. And this idea, I had a client who was wrestling with her energy, and many of my clients are. Leadership is exhausting. As a CEO of a big organization, there's a ton of stuff that's just depleting about that. So, we decided she would pay attention to those things and just go on an exploration for those things that brought her energy to notice. And she said, “The thing I thought I would be able to do when we talked again is I would give you a list of the things that brought me energy.” And she said, “I can, in fact, do that. But the thing that I've discovered is that paying attention to and noticing those things that bring me energy means that many more of them pop up, I actually get energy from much more of my day than I had before I was noticing this question about energy. It has actually changed my experience of exactly the same events as I had before. And so, this question about noticing as both a way to categorize what is and also a transformation switch for what could be is one of the reasons I think it is a genius.
Scott Allen 13:40
Yes, because I think some people, when faced with that threat, work from their defaults, and just respond. And that's oftentimes a recipe for making things more of a mess. Adding complexity. My wife at times will say, maybe one of our children is kind of heated, and then I might get heated, and now there's two of us, and then there might be three of us. If I had been better, we would have calmed down the situation. Back to your point of learning through parenting, right? If we're noticing that, then there's an awareness there, and there's an opportunity there to react differently next time, or just being present and intentional about that. It's wonderful.
It opens up the pathway to choice as opposed to having our choices kind of on autopilot. Human autopilot is not good in complexity. This is what I have absolutely learned. Conflict, complexity, human autopilot is not our friend under these conditions because autopilot was kind of designed. It evolved at a time when things were much more straightforward. If you experienced conflict hitting or running; good idea. Now, if you have family conflict, hitting and running; a bad idea, but this is what your body wants to do.
Scott Allen 15:01
Yeah. I'm noticing, and then we go into the genius of breathing. Talk about that.
Breath is the most underrated leadership tool in the world. We have it with us all the time. It is the actual literal switch between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. We can actually change what becomes available to us, what neurochemicals are flowing through our brains by the intentional use of the breath. And you can do it anywhere. It's another one of these things that happens to us, obviously, we don't think about breathing., or we can use it as a tool to shape the world we want to be living in. And it seems so simple, and it is; it's freakishly simple. But remembering to do it when you're pissed, is hard.
Scott Allen 15:52
Hard, so difficult. Why? I wonder what the biological reason for that is, but so hard.
I think it's because we're used to thinking about a crisis as an emergency, this is what our body is doing. It's trying to save our life all the time. And these systems evolved when saving your life all the time meant split-second reactions to danger, physical danger, not good impulses for a rough meeting, not good impulses if you're annoyed at your kid's teacher. Not good. So how do we say, “Thank you, impulse of mine, I see where you're taking me, and I'm in the jungle right now. I'd like to make a different choice.”
Scott Allen 16:34
I love the conversation with the autopilot system. “I acknowledge you, and you've been good to me, and not in this situation.” And I love the kind of notion in the section on experimentation because I think you referenced the work of Snowden and Boone in the book. And we have leaders confronting these different types of problems, whether it's simple, or complicated, or complex or chaotic. And we could call them adaptive challenges if we're with Ron Heifetz. There are different types of problems, and these complexities require some level of experimentation, at least how I say it, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on if you agree with this. How I see it oftentimes is, if there's no authority figure, you can call on the world to say, “How do I get my stock price up $10?” That doesn't exist, then you're kind of in a complexity. Or if it's, “How do I influence my child to get a B-plus in math?” That's complex because, as a former guest on the show said, each person is an infinity. Mike Mascolo said that. And we're going to be in a space then of experimentation. And there really isn't any other path forward that I know of other than we're in this place of experimentation, right?
I agree with you. And the thing that's so interesting is how hard it is to actually let go of our desire to plan and engineer a particular outcome. And so, we've been teaching about experimentation for years and years. And in fact, we had this one fabulous client years ago, we had this fabulous client, and we did a summit on experimentation. As you might imagine, this was an experiment to do this summit on experimentation. And we did the summit, and, at the end, it was kind of a shrug. Kind of we came out of it, and we were like, “Nothing great happened here. People had some good conversations, some useful things were happening. Was it worth the investment of all these people's time? No.” And I was gutted. I was so upset about how… Nobody had a bad time, there was nothing awful that happened. It was kind of mediocre. And I was gutted at this mediocre. We learned 10,000 things about experimentation, and I was gutted about the mediocre. And one of my clients said to me, “Jennifer, this was an experiment. We learned so much. The point of experimentation is learning, right? What's going on with you?” I was like, “Right, right, thank you for teaching me about experimentation in this moment.” But it really drove home to me that the thing that gets in the way of experimentation, I think, more than anything, is our identity and our desire for things to be fantastic, things we touch to go well, and the kind of built-in assumption that going well is that some magical outcome is reached. We are attached much more to outcome than I think we notice. I am much more attached to the outcome than I notice. And so, what we play with in the book is to look at the way our identity is connected to this idea of experimenting and how can we be in that part of us that gleefully playfully explores and learns and not that part of us that's seeking a perfect outcome? And how can we coax that part out? And what I found is, I've been teaching leaders about experimentation for, whatever, 20 years, and they come up with kind of crappy experiments, by and large. And when I teach them about themselves as experimenters, and they get in touch with that, they come up with kind of great experiments. That was a move I didn't expect.
Scott Allen 20:27
Well, yes, because each one of us, whether it's my health, I'm running experiments to see how to optimize that, how to get where I want to be, and there's experiments that fail. But, to your previous point, there's risk, and there's a threat in some of that experimentation. And again, there's a failure because I might fail for a year full of kind of not really locking into what's going to work for me. And I said it to my wife this morning, we are on a walk at about 5:00 AM, and we had just stopped doing HIIT training, High-Intensity Interval Training. So, at 5:00 AM, which was the only time that we could both go and work out, we would be listening to very loud Whitney Houston. (Laughs) I have weights in my hands, and then I'd rush over, and I'd run, and it was the most tragic way to wake up every day. And finally, I looked at my wife, and I said, “I do not like this, let's just go on a walk and run that experiment.” And you know what? It's been so wonderful.
Sometimes failure is so useful, isn't it?
Scott Allen 21:31
“I do not like this.” The Thong Song at 5:20 AM on loud. "No, this is not how I want my day to begin!"
But this is getting in touch with the fact that we are constantly running experiments, constantly doing it. But, at work, particularly, we don't want to admit that we're doing it because that seems somehow unprofessional, or loose, or we might not meet our quarterly objectives, or whatever that is. There's so much in the workspace that pushes against this. And then, organizations complain about how their people are not thinking broadly enough, not trying new things, not iterating quickly, and learning.
Scott Allen 22:15
Well, as we begin to kind of wind down our time together, is there something else that you would want listeners to know about the book? Maybe it's even something like you mentioned, you've learned since writing it. There's some more chapters for all of you to explore, and I think this has been a nice, real kind of taste of what's in this book. Again, it's just wonderful. I've marked it up, there are stars, there's underlined, there’s brackets. I don't necessarily use highlighters, I just use a pen. It was a wonderful read, and it was digestible. It was thorough, but when you read some books, and there's a lot of fluff, I didn't feel like there was a ton of fluff in this. It's like you get to the point; you tell us what we need to know. And it's good. It's a good read. And it's actionable, which I also love. So, anything else comes to mind for you?
Thank you very much. This was my goal for the book. And in addition to becoming famous in Cleveland, I also…
Scott Allen 23:10
(Laughs) I am going to get you a T-shirt. “Cleveland, I'm kind of a big deal there,” right?
I'll take it. I'll wear it here in my garden in France. The other thing that has really stuck for me is this question of how do we create the conditions for the lives we want to live and for the organizations we want to be in? How do leaders help people create conditions? Creating conditions is such an important question in complexity, such an important question in leadership, it's also important for our lives and for our nervous system. How do we create the conditions for our nervous systems to be thriving and the nervous systems of other people to be thriving? And, right now, as you mentioned in my bio, I am thinking a lot about creating conditions for community, for connection, for love. And I think that post-COVID organizations, and leaders, and humans of all varieties are still trying to figure out how did we get so disconnected and how can we intentionally create the conditions for connection. And pretty much every study of health, leadership, innovation, culture, happiness, parenting, name a good, every study boils down to how connected are you. Complexity points to this, research points to this, theory points to this, practice points to this, our own experience points to this.
Scott Allen 24:40
Family therapy literature, for sure. (John) Gottman studies. Just, yes.
All of it. So, maybe this is the most important thing we got. How much time do we put into thinking about how are we creating the conditions for love to be generated in our lives? Not just at home but everywhere. With our neighbors, with our friends, with our colleagues, with our bosses, with our environment, I think that this question, noticing this, I think changes your life.
Scott Allen 25:13
I do some work in different types of organizations like you have. And so, I do some work in architecture, and there's a lot of design. We've designed the space, and I love how you're thinking; how do we design an organization, design our lives in a way with intentionality? And again, it's going to be experiments; it won't be perfect the first time, but how do we fill our lives with a level of intentionality? I think it's a wonderful, wonderful question because, otherwise, it's just kind of nothing's intentional. It's willy-nilly. Hopefully, it happens. Hopefully, you got great parents. Hopefully, you have some good friends around you. But if we're not thinking in that way of designing our lives in a way where those relationships… Because yes, even the literature on people with strong relationships, they get sick less, they recover more quickly, they get in fewer accidents, and they die less frequently. (Laughs)
Their psychological health is better because everything is better. And in the leadership literature and in the organizational culture literature, the question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” … the most important culture questions Gallup has ever found. Why? because good leaders design for connection. Good leaders understand that you can create the conditions for people to hate each other, and you can create the conditions that make it more likely that people will love each other. And hate is not a generative emotion. And love, as we know, is a very generative emotion. So, really, considering how are we designing our spaces? You don't have to buy a big house with 11 friends in the SouthWest of France to have this exploration, but there's something you could do differently today. There's some experiment you could take on that would, maybe, move this from ‘I hope it happens’ to ‘I'm designing the possibility and to make it more likely.’
Scott Allen 27:10
That's wonderful. Well, as we close out for today, I always ask guests what they've been reading or listening to, what's caught their attention. It could be something you've been streaming. It really could have to do with what we've just discussed, it could have nothing to do with what we discussed. Maybe it's a wonderful novel you've come across in recent times. But what might listeners be interested in that's caught your attention recently?
I have been reading the novels of a Canadian novelist, Victoria Goddard, and she has created a set of books, many of them that are kind of post-apocalyptic. But they are post-apocalyptic in a world where things are getting a little bit better every day, and things are getting… Through good government, through kindness, and friendship, the world can be remade. This time, where some of our just waking lives feel kind of apocalyptic, I find the reminder, which also comes from being these other ways through… One of the other things we're exploring is Frederic Laloux, and his wife have a process called ‘The We’, which is to help you think about climate change, and what your life is going to be in this next chapter, and what role you want to play. We've been doing that at my firm; we've been doing that here and in this place. This idea that through difficulty, sometimes grave difficulty, you can make a better world this is what's capturing my attention.
Scott Allen 28:40
Yeah, I love it. Because you can sit there… And there's potential opportunity and possibility in that space if captured, right?
That's right. And Peter Senge, years ago, I was at a conference with Peter, and he said, “We don't have time for hopelessness. We don't have the luxury of pessimism.” And this idea that hopelessness and pessimism are luxury items. And that hope and optimism are requirements for making positive change. These ideas get me out of bed every morning.
Scott Allen 29:16
Well, I am so thankful. I hope you'll return, and we can continue the conversation.
Scott Allen 29:22
I'm so thankful for you for your time for your incredible work. And it's just been a sheer pleasure getting to know you. Thank you so much. Continue doing great things out there in the world, in the south of France. (Laughs). Thank you. Thank you very, very much.
Thank you. I can't wait to see you in Cleveland one day.
Scott Allen 29:42
It's a date. Okay, be well.
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