Essentialist Leadership – How to Live and Work on Purpose

 Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize. – Greg McKeown

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown reminds and challenges us about the power and impact of clarifying and focusing on what’s most important.

Here are some helpful perspectives, potential difficulties and practical tips for living and working with a clear focus on what’s essential from McKeown and from my own experience in working with thousands of leaders as an executive coach and consultant.

Essentialist perspectives

Leading with an essentialist mindset and approach to life and work means shifting:

From To
Reactively fighting constant fires Proactively discerning short-term and long-term priorities
Burn-out and disengagement Living and working with energy and joy
I have to I choose to
Saying ‘yes’ to everything Saying ‘yes’ to what’s essential and ‘no’ to the rest
A little progress in a lot of areas A lot of progress in the few highest priority areas

Focusing on the essentials in work and life is not a new or complicated idea.

Why is it so difficult for most of us?

I believe it’s because we tend to buy into lies and pressures around us, such as:

  • What’s urgent is most important.
  • If I’m busy, I’ll be productive and valuable.
  • Saying ‘no’ is too risky. People will only like and respect me if I don’t disappoint them. And only then will I be happy and successful.
  • I can have it all, at the same time. I don’t need to make trade-offs.
  • More is always better.

Unfortunately, if we yield to these mindsets, we will likely find ourselves stretched too thin, overworked, underutilized, majoring in minor activities, and busy but not productive. In McKeown’s words, we will be, ‘always in motion but never getting anywhere.’

Essentialist tips

  1. WIN = What’s Important Now. McKeown tells the story of Larry Gelwix, Highland High School rugby coach, who teaches his teams to WIN by being fully present and clear on what’s most important for them moment by moment. Instead of rehashing the last play, getting ready for the next play or worrying about what the other team is doing, Gelwix’s players focus on what they need to do in the moment. Their record of success speaks for itself: 418 wins, 10 losses and 20 national championships. How often do the rest of us lose effectiveness, enjoyment and fulfillment in the moment – and in the longer term – by worrying too much about the past, the future or what others are doing?
  2. Beware of squirrels and other impediments to focused concentration. It’s impossible for our brain to concentrate fully on more than one thing at a time. Yes, we can ‘multi-task’ (e.g., walking down a familiar sidewalk while talking with a friend), and we can get better at shifting focus between tasks. But we can’t ‘multi-focus’ (e.g., fully engaging in two different conversations at once.)
  3. Ruthlessly strive for clarity. Clarity is key – whether aligning on a few strategic priorities for the year, distinguishing roles and responsibilities between project team members, defining the real problem before jumping to solve the ‘wrong’ one, or identifying who will do what by when at the end of a meeting. Though gaining clarity can take extra time and effort up-front, it saves time, headaches and energy later.
  4. Build in time to think and plan strategically. Otherwise, you will likely live in the burning weeds and execute others’ priorities. Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different. – Michael Porter
  5. Learn to say no. People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’ – Peter Drucker
  6. Protect the asset (you). Research continues to underscore the benefits of resting well, eating well, exercising regularly, nourishing supportive relationships, and playing often. Building healthy habits in these areas helps us be more energized, creative, mentally sharp, happier and able to focus clearly on doing less better.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders and teams achieve extraordinary relationships and results that matter. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.