This is a summary of an fairly straight forward book.. Jenifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mind Traps: How to thrive in Complexity (Sandford Briefs 2019).

The book essentially argues that our ways of approaching complex and uncertain problems is likely to generate even more problems, because of psychological programming (or perhaps human nature – I’m not going to assume these problems are universal). Non-work lives do not help either, as we have a lot of interconnecting and interrupting problems to face even when we are not at work, and this takes away lack of urgency from around the problems and piles on the pressure. There is no space for slow thinking or contemplation. Our issues get worse.

The five psycho-social problems involve

  • Simplification
  • Rightness
  • Agreement
  • Control
  • Ego protection

So lets look at what this involves….

Simplification: Using simple and repetitive stories

Humans tend to live by simple stories, which fit into a standard narrative frame. These stories can help bond us together, because they are, or become, shared. However, simple stories narrow focus and freeze creativity….

It is common that we use repetitive stories to give ourselves an interpretations of events, without bothering to check if they are true…. We may see people in specific (and repeated) roles, such as being unhelpful, hostile, or even evil. We may see ourselves as perpetually failing, or suffering, or triumphing, and add more examples to ‘illustrate’ our stories. We turn fragments of ‘evidence’ into a familiar story, or plug them into familiar stories, and that often seems like its enough. Without any check whatsoever if the story is true… We may not even know what we are doing.

We don’t look for new solutions or new information, because we feel we ‘know’ what happened, because of the story we tell ourselves. Not only is our story likely to be wrong, because the world is complex, but it is likely to shape what we perceive and what we ignore. It is also likely to replace complex interactional causality, with linear causality, to make the explanation easy. People are also likely to give a story a beginning and an end, when in complex systems beginnings and endings may never be clear.

The simplicity of stories tends to mean that we feel it is ok to simplify the world. We don’t have to look for unexpected connections, or unexpected causalities, unintentional consequences and so on – all of which are features of normal life in complex systems.

One way to get out of this harmful simplicity, is to see if we can tell multiple stories, change people’s roles in the story etc… tell the story from other people’s point of view (as our views of any complex system are likely to be different). We can add things which might seem irrelevant. We can wonder how the story or the simplification could be wrong. The more stories we can tell the more we might notice or imagine.

We may not be able to avoid simple stories, and simplifications, but we don’t have to believe them, and we can expand the range of possible events we consider, or even just change the story…..

A simple story in a complex world is probably wrong.


We often think something is correct because it feels right, and assume we are right most of the time, or again we may get carried away by the story. We seek data that confirms our rightness, rather than our wrongness, and we tend to reinforce this attitude by ignoring areas in which we are uncertain – It is other people who are wrong and need teaching, rather than ourselves who need to learn.

Being right has similar problems to reducing things to simple stories, it causes us to ignore things which may be going on. It can also cause us to make situations worse, as we ignore data that is telling us we are wrong, when we cannot be. People thinking they are inevitably right, are dangerous.

If you feel certain about something then ask questions, anyway….


Agreement is not inherently bad, but Humans tend to agree with people who they identify with too quickly. If everyone has the same bias, then an agreement can just reinforce that bias, and again stop exploration. Agreement gives us a sense of belonging in the chaos, and thus reassurance we are right, or that it is not just our fault if everything goes wrong. On the other hand, people may disagree with people they identify with as outgroup, as quickly as they agree with those defined as ingroup. As usual this process removes information from people.

Try disagreeing to expand our sense of the problem.


Complex systems are very hard to control, or to master. They slip out of our hands or our machines. Yet in modern societies, its generally expected that leaders be in control, so leaders can insist on simple targets which are actually distractions from the real job. They can assume that because some practice has worked before, it will automatically work again.

Leadership in complex systems involves letting go and allowing things to happen, in the best way that seems to be possible.

We cannot control many outcomes, but we can influence, conditions, events and what is emerging – having a direction rather than a fixed destination. We can experiment, without knowing what will happen in advance.

Ego protection

We can’t avoid egos, because we cannot perceive or understand everything; we simplify, we try to fit in and be part of the ingroup, we try to control our lives, random events and other people, and so on. In a sense, our sense of self is unreal or dependent on what we think others will want or observe, and we try to protect it from attack from others, and attack from the world. We try and protect our reputations, and our group membership and respect, rather than reacting to the world as it is, and so on. Protecting our ego is to some extent trying to enforce the past, and not react to the present, or our present position.


The problem is that complexity is not simple. It is not possible to know everything relevant about a complex system, although we might model it well enough for short term purposes.

Our habits of:

  • Isolating simple parts of reality and giving them prominence, and linking everything together through standard stories which we use as detailed interpretative maps of reality
  • Of insisting that we are right, and know everything important
  • Of reinforcing our rightness by agreement, so that understanding becomes a group activity tied into identity, which reinforces the processes of not looking for alternatives or exceptions
  • Of trying to control and force the system to behave in particular ways, and being upset when there are unintended and disruptive consequences,
  • Of trying to not risk our status, and keep in well with those people in our ingroup

All increase the tendency to ignore reality and make it personally and socially acceptable, so we tend not to deal with complexity, or life, very well. As a result, we can head towards some kind of destruction.

Realising these 5 processes are mind traps, not mind virtues, helps us to undo them and get more perception and information. This can be thought of as a negative process. Lowering the influence of the mind traps won’t ensure you can deal with complexity, but it will help. It’s a basic first step.

Another problem occurs when we have political movements which get trapped in these processes, and we ignore the world’s complexity and attempt to suppress that complexity. This may work for a while, but the long term prospects are not good. As I’ve said before, in an organisation which reinforces the mind traps with a punitive hierarchy, punishing people for not agreeing with the organisation’s stories, their rightness and demands for control, then the upper layers of the organisation will have very little idea of what is going on, as people will make sure they don’t tell those people anything which will get them punished, and the whole organisation becomes a mind-trap.

This is why some generals make sure they talk to the troops in an informal and safe situation, to find out what is really happening; to get new stories, new information, and stories of failure of control and action. They avoid their officers telling them what those officers think the general wants to hear.

Just as a footnote, it seems to me that talking of complex adaptive systems is a story which helps confuse people. It implies that the systems will adapt to whatever we might do, or that they will adapt to support us. This is simply not necessarily true. Systems can adapt to be hostile to any of the life forms that currently occupy them – especially if those life forms continually disrupt the system.