3 mental habits that will make you a better leader in a complex world

Jennifer Garvey Berger is an expert on adult development theory as it relates to leadership. In her book Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World (Amazon UK, US) she identifies three specific habits of mind that a leader should cultivate to allow them to better navigate a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity. She also identifies a four-stage path to growth that an individual might take to develop a more complex form of mind.

Changing on the Job : Developing Leaders for a Complex World is written for people who really want to understand the shape and features of adult growth so they can either support their own growth and development or support the growth and development of others. Being a book about complexity, not simplicity, it avoids the temptation to provide a prescription for achieving a self-transformed form of mind. Instead, it really gets under the hood of what it takes to be a true leader with developed habits and forms mind.

3 leadership habits of mind

Ask different questions

If we really want to grow on the job, it becomes vital for us to not simply ask our regular questions again and again, but to ask questions that move us beyond the frontier of our current understanding. This is paradoxical because we are rewarded at work for knowing the answers rather than asking the questions. We are generally not rewarded for uncertainty, yet having the courage and ability to ask different questions, and being open to a wider range of possibilities , is key to equipping us to be able to manage complex issues.

To be able to ask different questions, questions that will keep us learning, is a habit of mind that stretches the brain, makes possible new discoveries and new connections, and creates a distinctive learning system.

Take multiple perspectives

Taking multiple perspectives enables people to see a wider range of possibilities, be able to empathize, make deeper connections, and understand the views of others. Even with these benefits, taking multiple perspectives isn’t natural for most people. The brain acts as a filter, keeping from view any ideas or perspectives that might be disconcerting – or that might actually teach us a thing or two. Learning the habit of intentionally taking other people’s perspectives stretches the mind and makes it possible to see new options. And when someone has the habit of taking multiple perspectives for herself, others begin to sense the openness and begin to offer information that a person with a more closed perspective and affect might never hear. This means that the multiple perspectives begin to be fed from within and from without, and people have greater access to the broader views they need in order to address complex issues.

Perhaps it s not surprising that at every developmental form of mind, it is easier to take the perspective of someone who agrees with you than someone who disagrees with you. Increasing the capacity to cope with differing perspectives is the hallmark of growth.

See the system

The human mind is a pattern-making device. We think and see and clump into patterns. We do not have to try to see patterns; our brain sees information and clumps it for us.

One set of capacities and perspectives that grows over time is our ability to see progressively more complex patterns. Seeing how things are connected to one another makes the world in some ways seem less mysterious (because we see the interactions between things that once just seemed like an assorted collection of unconnected events). In other ways, it makes the world seem more complex, with tangles threads that go in every direction. It is the progression from simple – but mysterious – to complex – but potentially overwhelming – that is the core growth in this regard.

Forms of mind: four stages of adult development & growth

Habits of mind are built upon forms of mind, which concern the way that individuals see and make sense of the world. As we progress though childhood and into adulthood our form of mind has the potential to grow. In each moment of our development is a potentially temporary form of mind that can become more expansive. As we grow, the previous form is overtaken by the new form, leaving traces of less-mature form behind like rings in a tree trunk. The rhythm of this movement is about increasing our ability to see more complexity in the world.

Adapted from Changing on the Job, below are the four stages of adult development and their manifestation.

Become a better leader - Adult Development Theory & forms of mind

Jennifer describes the stages of Adult Development, from the magical mind of the child through to the transformational stage in this video.

Individuals with a self-sovereign form of mind are uncommon in leadership positions within organisations because they have not yet developed basic leadership skills and characteristics. Leaders with a socialized form of mind are common where tasks are clear and well defined and the hierarchy is obvious, such that a leader who does not know what to do can seek the answer from an authority. Whilst leadership comes into its own among those who have self-transformed minds, only 1% of individuals reach a fully self-transformed form of mind.

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