This is the latest installment of a series on Jennifer Garvey Berger’s must-read, must-own Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps.

Earlier posts can be found here, and here, and here.

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So let’s review. The mindtraps we’ve explored so far include the stories you tell yourself (that are usually wrong) and the urgent importance of being right. We’ve dwelled on the fact that most of the time we’re listening to others to win, as opposed to learn. And that certainty is merely and emotion (although a dangerous one).

And recall that none of these mindtraps mean we are bad people. At least I hope not since I spend much of every day falling into most of them. But they do signify that (a) we evolved as a species to live in a much simpler world than the one we’ve created; and (b) we need to understand and manage our innate tendencies because otherwise they can get us into trouble as leaders.

That’s why Jennifer calls them mindtraps.

So on to mindtrap #3: The illusion of control. “Control is one of the mindtraps,” she writes, “because, like the others, it leads us in exactly the wrong direction in complex and fast-moving times.”

We have a really messed up relationship with control. And it definitely plays out in fundraising.

With any kind of complex system, our control over the system is extremely limited. And the more we try to drive outcomes out of a complex system, the worse it can get. If you’re a parent, you’ll know what I mean by this. If you’re a senior manager, ditto.

Here are just two of the ways our hunger for control leads us astray:

  • We blame people for outcomes that they cannot control. Let’s start with fundraising projections. If you are a fundraiser the odds are astronomically high that you’ve been yelled at when fundraising income falls short. You may even have been disciplined or even fired.
  • We focus on the wrong things. “When we can’t control big things, we substitute smaller ones, Jennifer writes. We fixate on vanity metrics – likes, retweets, the number of visits with prospects, etc. This is a double whammy – not only do we waste time and energy. BY focusing on the trees when we’re responsible for the forest we lose the big picture. In complexity, you really need to try to see the big picture.

So how do we dig our way out of this trap?

“In complexity,” Jennifer writes, “we have to shift to thinking about influence. We will not be able to make things happen, but we can be thoughtful about how we support the emergence of the things we want.”

You can start by asking different questions, ones that recognize the outputs of complex systems is emergent. Instead of asking yourself what you can control, ask yourself what you can influence? How can you influence the system to make the direction you want to go in more likely? How can you help create conducive conditions for progress? How can you enable your team? How can you enable yourself?

There’s another strategy you can pursue that will help you learn how to influence the system – so-called safe to fail experiments. But that dear reader, is a topic for another blog post.