1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Essential leaders help those they lead feel understood by focusing on interpersonal communication. 

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Make a list of relationships (personal and/or professional) that you have that are both essential and strained. 
  • Have an honest conversation where you let them know you have allowed your agenda to drive your actions. Apologize and tell them you will try and see things from their point of view because you want to understand. 

3 Questions to Ask

  • What essential relationships do I have that are strained?
  • Have I been driving my agenda in these relationships?
  • How can I better listen and understand that person’s point of view?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • What it means to lead essentially (1:24)
  • Communication – the engine for leading essentially (5:11)
  • When our ability to understand each other, everything becomes easier (8:32)
  • Why the leader must take the initiative to understand (10:37)
  • How to upgrade the quality of your interpersonal communication (11:43)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn to understand so that we can make a higher contribution. 

How are you doing at applying Essentialism to your leadership responsibilities? By the end of this episode, you will have specific things you can do right now to be more essentialist in your leadership. Let’s begin.

To get more out of this episode, please go to gregmckeown.com/1MW to sign up for the One Minute Wednesday newsletter. Join more than 150,000 people who have signed up to that and growing every day. 

LinkedIn’s former CEO, Jeff Wiener, sees fewer things done better as the most powerful mechanism for leadership. When he took reigns of the company, he could easily have adopted the standard operating procedure of most Silicon Valley startups and tried to pursue, well, pretty much everything. Instead, he said no to really good opportunities in order to pursue only the very best ones. 

He used the acronym focus or FCS to teach his philosophy to his then-employees. Those three letters stand for three related principles. The F stands for fewer things done better, the C for communicating the right information to the right people at the right time, and S speed and quality of decision-making.

Indeed, that is a summary of what it means to lead essentially. Essentialism as a way of thinking and acting is as relevant to the way we lead companies and teams as it is to the way we lead our lives. In fact, many of the ideas that I have shared about Essentialism became clear to me while working with executive teams. I’ve since gathered data from far more than 500 individuals and their experiences on more than a thousand teams. I asked them to answer a series of questions about a time when they had worked on a unified team, what the experience was like, what role their manager played, and what the end result was. Then I had them contrast this with a time they’d been on a disunified team and what that was like, what role their manager played, and how it affected the end result.

The results of this research were startling when there was a high level of clarity of purpose. The teams and the people on it overwhelmingly thrived. When there was a serious lack of clarity about what the team stood for and what their goals and roles were, people experienced confusion, stress, frustration, and, ultimately, failure. 

As one senior vice president succinctly summarized it when she looked at the results gathered from her extended team, clarity equals success, so this is just one of the many reasons that the principle of less but better is just as useful in building teams that can make a difference as it is in enabling individuals to live a life that really matters. 

Life on teams today is fast and full of opportunity. When teams are unified, the abundance of opportunity can be a good thing, but when teams lack clarity of purpose, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discern which of these myriad opportunities are truly vital.

The unintended consequence is that non-essentialist managers try to have their teams pursue too many things and try to do too many things themselves as well, and the team plateaus in their progress. An essentialist leader makes a different choice with clarity of purpose, she is able to apply less but better to everything from talent selection to direction, to roles, to communication to accountability. As a result, her team becomes unified and breaks through to the next level. 

Now, for the purposes of this episode, I want to emphasize the three parts of Wiener’s philosophy. Fewer things done better could be described as the mindset, speed, and quality of decision making is the output, but the engine, the mechanism for achieving this is communicating the right information to the right people at the right time. And that really is the mechanism for creating essentialist culture. 

If you want to be able to bring essentialism into your team, into your organization, into your relationships, your family, even the competence that you need to extend beyond its current level is this particular ability to communicate and to communicate in such a way that everybody has an opportunity to be able to speak and to be heard that everybody feels that psychological safety that we’ve been talking about with Dr. Amy Edmondson. And really, this becomes the priority skill for scaling essentialism beyond yourself and your own life habits. 

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I went on a trip, an adventure to the Althing. Let me read a little about what the Althing is just from Wikipedia. It’s the Supreme National Parliament of Iceland. It is considered one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world. It was founded in approximately 930 A.D. It’s situated about 28 miles east of what is now called Reykjavik, and Thingvellir itself is situated at the only visible separation of two tectonic plates in the world, and there at that place, Thingvellir, arguably the mother of parliaments, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the importance of protecting the ability to be able to communicate.

I certainly view our ability to communicate with each other, our ability to understand one another, to be our most precious interpersonal ability. When our ability to understand each other goes up, everything becomes easier in a sense, everything becomes almost effortless, but as our ability to understand each other goes down, everything becomes harder, everything becomes more painful, and you can reflect on that from a socioeconomic point of view. As is implied with this conversation about parliaments, and wonder whether, in the world at large, we are seeing an increased or decreased ability in our formal parliament and houses of Congress to be able to understand each other and work together and solve problems, even complex problems, even things we disagree with. But you can also take the same reflection and apply it to yourself and to think in your life right now about one relationship that is both essential and strained. 

Perhaps there is somebody you are working with, someone on your team, maybe it’s your manager. Maybe it’s even closer to home than that somebody in your family. Maybe it’s your partner, your spouse, maybe it’s your teenager, and tell me whether what I just described is true in that relationship, in your leadership responsibilities with that person. Is it not true that your ability to be able to communicate and understand each other is a key litmus test for the health of the whole relationship? 

I worked with somebody not long ago who was sharing with me his challenges with his teenage daughter, and I had the observation to observe them. In fact, I had the opportunity to be able to talk to each of them separately, and what I observed goes to the heart of the matter, the heart of why I think this subject matter has the power of relevancy right now. Because really, each of them have so much capability, so much talent, so many assets separately, but together it’s like a sort of negative synergy. The relationship does not add up to the sum of their individual parts, and what for me is more than a little disheartening. It is extremely frustrating to see what I at least perceive as being quite a simple solution but one that seems extremely unlikely at this moment. 

The solution really is for the leader, the parent, to withhold all judgment, to be able to shelve his agenda completely and not just for a second, not just for 10 minutes, but maybe for a sustained period of time. To shelve your agenda is really from John Gottman, the creator of the love lab, as it’s so data-driven. If he would shelve his agenda to put aside his own view of what his daughter should do, of what she should decide, of how she should act, if he could put aside entirely his preconceived notions about how she is disappointing him all the time, based on these mental models and perspectives that he has in his own head, he could begin to heal the breach. There is currently what feels like a chasm between them, but strangely it is a chasm created by this misunderstanding that exists. 

Now, why should the leader begin? Why should the leader be the person who really sets out the agenda to understand? Well, it’s a bit like walking into an elevator. If you walk in there awkwardly, if you don’t say anything, the person that’s in there, the people that are there, will behave in exactly the same way as you do. You can test it. It’s not a hundred percent foolproof, but my experience is 90, 95% of the time, whatever you do, they will do. If you say hello, they will say hello. If you start a conversation and keep asking questions, they will talk to you in the same way, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for in these strained relationships in our lives. 

If they’re essential, if they’re important, and if we want to improve the output that we want. Now I’m going back to business terms here. If we want faster, higher quality decisions, if we want to be able to make progress together, then we have to work on the bottleneck of communication, of understanding one another, and as that expands everything else we want, we’ll expand faster as well. 

What’s the actionable advice here? Perhaps begin this way. I haven’t really been listening to you. I’ve spent too much time trying to tell you everything you ought to be doing. I’ve let my own agenda drive our conversations in so many of our interactions. I apologize. I want to do better. I want to try and do better now. I’m going to just shelve my agenda and try to see things from your point of view. I want to listen. I want to understand. Can we have another go at this? I’ll need you to be a little patient with me because I’m new to this, and I’m not great at this, but can we begin now?

You can’t expect the other person to suddenly just chair forward everything that’s been holding them back. They might, depending on the relationship, but if that relationship is one that has been strained many times, they are not likely to feel confident in your expression, even your apology. They would be very hesitant to believe it, but if you are as patient as the circumstance requires, if you will persist in showing them that you really do want to see their worldview, as Carl Rogers described it from their frame of reference, then you have the opportunity to have them open up the first layer. 

Then don’t jump in. Wait, listen, and ask an honest question you don’t know the answer to. Empathically restate, and interrupt only to make sure that you understand what they’re saying. As soon as you find yourself emotional, apologize, step back, and keep going layer by layer until they will reveal themselves.

You might not be able to do it in a single conversation. If you’re highly skilled, if you completely put your agenda to the side, you can achieve enormous amounts in a very short period of time, but you might have to commit it a few times. You might have to commit it for a while, and then eventually, as they open up, as they start to discover for themselves what the blockades are within themselves. It’s not like people are sitting around absolutely clear about what the confusion is inside of them. So there’ll come a point in the interaction where they are discovering what’s really going on, and that becomes exciting, but it’s also vulnerable, and the temptation, of course, is to jump in a solutionist type leader. Well, I’ll tell you what to do, and we bring our agenda back too soon. Resist that even when you discover the very heart of the problem, allow there to be space, affirm them for sharing it, but hold back your advice. Wait for another day, and come back to it again because what you are really trying to do is use communication to understand them in a way that heals the relationship, and you just tell me what happens the moment you go from misunderstanding in a relationship to understanding. What happens to the speed of your decision making? What happens to your ability to solve problems together? What happens to your ability to make progress on the things that really matter, on the things that are essential? All of those things become unlocked. 

So if you are serious about being an essentialist leader, then you need to be serious about upgrading the quality of your interpersonal communication, the communication with the people around you and on your team, and facilitating their conversation so that everyone has a chance to speak and everyone has a chance to really be heard, to really connect so that you can, like a slingshot, be able to propel your team forward because as Margaret Mead so perfectly put it, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. 

What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why does that matter so much, and who is one person you can share that with within the next 24 to 48 hours? 

If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Thank you. Really., thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.