Leadership Book Report: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Fasten Your Seatbelt

A leadership book report on Essentialism by Greg McKeown

If you haven’t visited my site before and you consider yourself a leader, then you are in for a treat.

Everything I do is about leadership development and thinking about the characteristics of effective school principals.

The Better Leaders Better Schools blog and podcast was made specifically for you to help you meet your leadership potential.

Previously I was writing a post once a week reviewing Essentialism and sharing the key-takeaways I had reading this awesome book filled with leadership insights.  That was going well, but …

I thought it would be a better (and a new) idea to write one GIANT post on Essentialism and release it as one VALUE PACKED post! I want you to consider this essentialism book summary a leadership book report if you will.

I encourage you to read this post in it’s entirety, but you can always use the leadership report outline to jump straight to chapters.

Chapter 1: The Essentialist   Chapter 2: Choose    Chapter 3: Discern    Chapter 4: Trade-offs

Chapter 5: Escape    Chapter 6: Look    Chapter 7: Play    Chapter 8: Sleep

Chapter 9: Select    Chapter 10: Clarify    Chapter 11: Dare    Chapter 12: Uncommit

Chapter 13: Edit    Chapter 14: Limit    Chapter 15: Buffer    Chapter 16: Subtract

Chapter 17: Progress    Chapter 18: Flow    Chapter 19: Focus    Chapter 20: Be

If you get value from this post … share it with your friends.

Buy Essentialism for yourself and your team.

By doing this you will be investing in the development of the characteristics of effective school principals.

Depending on the success of this post maybe I’ll try this approach to most of the books that impact me and offer you the reader as many leadership book reports as possible!

Besides these insights you will find essentialism quotes that you can retweet and share on social media making you look like a genius.

Plus I’ll include a call to action at the end of each chapter summary for those leaders interested in stepping their leadership game up a notch.

Essentialism is the best book I read in 2014.

It has been so impactful in leadership development I wrote this Essentialism book summary specifically for you!  You can also find a list of my best 10 leadership books from the Global Leadership Summit here.

Anyone interested in developing the characteristics of effective school principals should purchase and read this book now.

I made it easy for you … you can pick up Essentialism here.

FYI … I have 3 links to books sold on Amazon in this post.  If you buy the books (and I think you should), then I will receive a small commission that I will put toward the cost of hosting this website.  Every book I’ve read and highly recommend.  There is no additional cost to you if you choose to purchase through a link in this post.

If you find value in this post, please share this Essentialism book summary via social media with your PLN.

[Tweet “Check out the @_Better Schools leadership book report on @GregoryMcKeown Essentialism #leadership http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Before we dive in … if you’re also the kind of individual always looking for great leadership insights, then you should absolutely check out my report on the 2015 Willow Global Leadership Summit.

1: The Essentialist

I cannot stress enough how it important it is to rigorously review every opportunity presented to you. A leader cannot be all things to all people nor should he have to be.

Strong leadership skills are developed through a pruning process. The plants in my house are healthier and more vibrant as a result of pruning. Given the time and resources at your disposal think about every opportunity and decide if they are the highest-value opportunities for you.  Chapter 1 is all about pruning.

Chapter 1 notes


  • Work like a consultant and do nothing else


  • Can I fulfill this request given the time and resources I have?
  • Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?


  • Shut off the phone. Go to the gym.

Weniger / Aber / Besser

  • Less but better
  • If you don’t prioritize someone else will
  • Reduce, simplify, focus

The Approach

  1. Explore and Evaluate — Will this activity, or effort, make the highest contribution to my goal?
  2. Eliminate — be wary of sunk cost bias.
  3. Execute — Create a routine

Calls to action

  • Phones can really distract. Turn them off or at the very least turn off your notifications. This will help increase focus and help you be “present” to fully engage with your staff.
  • Re-read the notes on “The Approach.” I love the part – ELIMINATE. Sunk cost bias is real. If you don’t know what that is, it is a logical fallacy. Basically, if you have invested time and/or money into a project you believe you have to complete it.  You don’t have to complete anything just because you spent time or money. You always have a choice.

Question for reflection

How does the idea “less is more” sit with you?  I am hopeful that one day you can experience the freedom and clarity of living a life of simplicity if you aren’t already.  The blueprint for doing so is available in this essentialist book.

[Tweet “@_BetterSchools Do you live a life of simplicity? Do you believe that less is more? #essentialism http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

2: Choose

The invincible power of choice

Sometimes we feel trapped as a leader, as if there are either only bad options or no options moving forward, but the truth is you always have a choice.

“You always have a choice” is not an easy pill to swallow.

Even though the options presented to us may be terrible … it is so much easier to say “I had no choice in the matter” as opposed to having the courage to make the right choice even if is unpopular.

[Tweet “@_BetterSchools Do you have the courage to make the right, but unpopular choice? #leadership http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Chapter 2 Notes

Activity to try

  • 20 minute brainstorm
  • Answer the question … What do I want to do with my life?

Choice Questions

I can’t do this versus I have to do this

  • You always have a choice
  • The ability to choose cannot be taken away … it can only be forgotten.

Call to Action

Identify a choice coming up that makes you uncomfortable.

List all the creative solutions and ways to approaching this problem as you can think of — without evaluating any of your ideas.

Look at your list of ideas and choose the top 3 ideas you have.  Choose one and go with it.

3: Discern

The power of the Pareto Principle


Chapter 3 focuses on the power of discernment.

Have you ever wasted an entire day on email or “organizing” your office? You were probably hiding from the harder and scarier work that needed to be done.

Or are you the type of person that says “Yes” to everything … to only find yourself bitter, frustrated, and even angry that you are so busy with all the engagements you said “Yes” to?

Chapter 3 Notes

Certain efforts yield higher rewards

  • Newspaper 1:1
  • Wash cars 1:6

The author, Greg McKeown uses two jobs he held as a kid. What he found was he could spend equal amount of time on two common ways children can earn money (paper routes & washing cars).

He quickly found that newspaper delivery was a waste of time because washing cars had a much higher ROI on his time.

What actions will produce the highest results?

The Pareto Principle is also known as the “80/20 Rule.”

That is because 20% of individual’s effort yields 80% of the positive results.

You read that correctly … according to the Pareto Principle 20% of what you do each day at work yields 80% of the results you want.

This illustrates a key idea of Essentialism = The Trivial Many versus the Vital Few.

[Tweet “What makes an effective principal?  She understands the 80/20 rule via @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Often, we find ourselves as leaders doing a lot of stuff … stuff that doesn’t matter nor produces the results we want.

With that being said, do you have the courage to cut the Trivial Many from your life and work?

Call to Action

  1. Map out everything you do day to day.
  2. Identify the 20% of high leverage activities that produce 80% of your positive results.
  3. Find a way to cut the Trivial Few from your life by delegating or cutting it all together.

If you do this I promise you are on your way to building strong leadership skills.

Email me if you do this activity.

I’d love to hear and potentially feature you on a blog post based on the Pareto Analysis you complete.

4: Trade-Offs

The give and take of Essentialism

Do you live in an imaginary world where there is no give-and-take and you can have everything you want?

Don’t worry, sometimes I live in that place too!

Chapter 4 Notes


  • How can I do both?
  • How can I have it all?


The Essentialist

  • Which problem do I want?
  • What do I want to go big on?

I really like that last bullet point.

What do I want to go big on? It forces a leader and organization to prioritize.

If you can go big on just one thing next year, what would it be?

[Tweet “If you can go big on just one thing next year, what would it be? #GoBig #BLBS #leadership http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Thomas Sowell (Economist)

  • There are no solutions, only trade-offs

Great Opportunity of Trade-Offs

  • weigh options
  • strategically select the best option
  • significantly increase the chances of achieving desired outcomes

Call to Action

  • Brainstorm a list of initiatives and areas of improvement.
  • Identify 3 passion projects.
  • Show the list to your leadership team and choose one area to go BIG!
  • Congratulations! You now have your focus for the year.

I know that it may not be comfortable to avoid attacking multiple areas / initiatives.

However, can you imagine the clarity, focus, and energy that is found pursuing one major initiative to go BIG on for the year?

5: Escape

Can you refuse the undisciplined pursuit of more?


Chapter 5 focuses on the idea of escape!

As a young boy I wondered why so many adults talked, complained, and joked about the “rat race.”

Now I know why …

Fortunately, I am lucky in the sense that I do not feel compelled to climb some type of corporate ladder and I fight to find my identity outside of my job.

Those are my best days and I still struggle at times.

Chapter 5 Notes

How can I reproduce a no-call Monday?

In the text, the author explains the practice one incredible company employs called “Do-Not-Call-Monday.”

Once a month, all employees are gathered into a room for a meeting. No phones and no email are allowed.

Even the day chosen for “Do-Not-Call-Monday” is intentional … the first Monday of the month … where energy and productivity are at all-time highs in most companies.

This essentialist practice is incredibly important because as people “unplug” from devices and other people’s agendas, real thinking and brainstorming can occur.

Non-essential (too busy to think about life) vs Essential (create space to explore and think).

“Do-Not-Call-Monday” taught me the importance to calendar time just to brainstorm, think, and dream. I was even challenged in this chapter to consider the actual physical space in my school.

Effective school leadership creates times of escape or “white space” on the calendar where people can just think.

Are there any places that actually allow unadulterated / uninterrupted thinking to occur?

The author describes in this chapter cube-chairs that are intentionally uncomfortable so people have to get up, walk around, and collaborate with each other.

He also describes a space called “Booth Noir,” which can fit 3 people or less, is soundproof, and completely void of technology. It eliminates all distractions.

What are we doing as leaders to build safe thinking zones for our staff to dream distraction free?

Teaching is an intensely creative and artistic endeavor. I’d love to hear how schools capture the “Escape” essence in their buildings these days.

New Routine

A personal goal of mine is to schedule 4 30 minute blocks into the week to just think and dream (and maybe be stretch a little via yoga).

It is a challenge, but I must refuse the undisciplined pursuit of more!

I also want to schedule times each morning to:

  • read the Bible
  • journal
  • read other materials that will help me grow personally and professionally.

Call to Action

Look at your current agenda. Eliminate or shorten non-essential tasks and create some time to have an uninterrupted brainstorm session.

My goal is 4 30 minute blocks.

6: Look

See what really matters.

Chapter 6 leadership insights focus on the idea of looking.

I don’t know about you, but I miss so much each day even though I exist with eyes wide open. There are many factors that limit my ability to see.

The biggest culprit is selfishness.

[Tweet “The biggest obstacle to seeing is selfishness #leadership #betterleadersbetterschools.com via @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

When I exist in my own bubble I don’t see what is going on around me.

A strength of mine is my organization, attention to detail, and planning.

Unfortunately, I often act as if these plans are set in stone and when my plans go off track I can become undone.

While my plans help me focus, if I focus only on my plans I can potentially miss out to the beauty around me.

Chapter 6 Notes

One leadership insight I learned in chapter 6 that I also think will be incredibly difficult is — listen for what is not said and look for what is not seen.

I feel like a philosopher after stating that last line 🙂

I also got to see that idea in action today during a warm-up activity I led.

Strong leadership skills are important to me so when I run meetings I focus on bringing the team together to continue building trust.

PRO TIP … building trust earns a leader “relational capital” which she can spend later on the nitty-gritty of people development. Never skimp on relationship and team building.

Memento Activity

So a cool activity I came up with I call the “Memento Activity.”

Today’s leadership meeting included 12 people.

All 12 were asked to bring in an item that was special to them. As individuals entered the meeting I asked them to discreetly hand me their mementos. I then placed them along the top of a bookshelf and added a sticky note with a number corresponding to each individual.

Each leader then put their name on a sheet of paper, numbered the sheet of paper, and tried to guess the owner of each memento. Everyone turned in their guesses and the items were returned to their rightful owners one-by-one as the owners described the significance of the item to the group.

The winner received a $15 movie card.

… and a rookie won today.

I was totally surprised that the newcomer won.

She knew the fewest people.

Sure some luck was on her side, but she also had a strategy.

She noted that the owner of each item passed over each item, never looking at it.

By paying attention to which leader passed on which item she guessed correctly for 8/11 items (one person forgot to bring a memento).

[Tweet “Check out this powerful team building activity I found #blbs #trust #team via @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Develop leadership capacity

I believe the best leaders are incredibly self-aware and journaling is one of the easiest strategies to build self-awareness.

Greg McKeown gave some of the best writing advice I have ever read, “Write less than you feel like writing.”

I wonder what you would learn about yourself as a leader if you kept a regular journal and skimmed it every 90 days?

Call to Action

Start looking for what is not seen and listening for what is not said.

Do you have a story of when you put this into practice?  Share it and maybe I’ll feature your story on the blog!

7: Play

Embrace the wisdom of your inner child


Sometimes our schools can be stuffy places … even with the abundance of creative energy filling each classroom!

Why is that?

Guys look handsome wearing a suit and I love looking the part at school, but sometimes I need to loosen my tie, roll up my sleeves, and get dirty.

[Tweet “There is tremendous value in play and creativity #leadership #betterleadersbetterschools.com @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

Almost all things worthwhile and nearly every happy memory I have was formed through play, laughing, and happiness.

Chapter 7 Notes

How can I value play in my organization?

Play sparks creativity and fires up the brain! I like doing this through improv games, doing fun stuff in the halls (like breaking into song or dance), and having toys and games in my office.

I could write an entire blog post on improv games (and maybe I will), but all the greatest games I’ve played come from this book right here.

WARNING … these games are not for the feint of heart. They require courage, a positive attitude, and a willingness to have FUN!

Oh yeah, and they will definitely help you build strong leadership skills.


The power of improv games is the idea of “Yes … And.” Quite simply “Yes … And” is a philosophy improv actors must take to survive on stage.

Have you ever been to an improv show where one actor shoots down another actor’s ideas?

Actor 1: So yesterday I saw you eating out of a garbage can …

Actor 2: No you didn’t

That’s not funny.

But the whole atmosphere changes when the actors “Yes … And” each other.

Actor 1: So yesterday I saw you eating out of a garbage can …

Actor 2: Yeah you probably did. On Tuesdays they have a 2 for 1 special on rotten eggs and wilted lettuce. It’s part of my Caveman diet.

Okay … so that joke might not be the best (I’m tired), but you can see the power of “Yes … And.”

When you “Yes … And” your people you set them up for success.

This complimentary disposition shows people that you are “for them” and they will remember your supportive attitude.

Look no further for characteristics of effective school principals.  “Yes … And” needs to be at the top of your leadership tools.

[Tweet “When you “Yes … And” your people you set them up for success. #collaboration #leadership #blbs @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7″]

Fundamentals of Play

  • Explore – opens our minds to a variety of possibilities
  • Antidote to stress
  • Positive effect on executive skills (e.g. planning, prioritizing, analyzing, etc.)

Call to Action

Buy this book on improv games and start “playing” with your staff. If you are not the type to lead improv games, then find that drama-creative-so-much-fun personality on staff to help you out.

FYI – did you know that improv actors call what they do playing?

8: Sleep

Protect the asset


When you think of strong leadership skills where do you rank sleep?

Is it …

  • first?
  • last?
  • in the middle?
  • unranked?

I don’t know about you, but I need sleep.

After a good night of rest I feel like a million bucks. Without proper sleep I am irritable and find it hard to sustain focus at work.

As I got older I realized that I needed to set a curfew for myself so that I prioritized rest.

At times the curfew can be hard to adhere to, but I find that I am more productive and present when I do get proper rest.

Chapter 8 Notes

Trust Other Experts

Michael Hyatt produces a high quality blog and podcast. His focus is on helping others “Win at work and succeed in life.” (aka developing strong leadership skills)

He has a very strong opinion about sleep.

Below are 4 resources for you on sleep.

Read his work:

You can listen to his great podcast episode on sleep here.

Tech Support

Resource #5 …

One app I really like to use is called “Sleep Cycle” for the iPhone (also available on Android).

Basically it uses the phone’s accelerometer to measure your quality of sleep. I put the phone in Airplane mode so that it’s not connecting and downloading data in my sleep.

You can read more about Sleep Cycle here.

Protect the Asset

It is so important to protect ourselves by protecting our sleep.

Research shows that sleep makes it easier to focus, solve problems, and be more effective.

Call to Action

Give yourself a bedtime if you don’t already have one. I like going to bed by 10:00pm and waking at 5:00am.

This allows me to get 7 hours of sleep.

It also gives me plenty of time to get into my morning ritual which includes reading the Bible, a meditation, and some personal growth reading.  It also allows me to get in a good morning work-out.

Of course I eat, take care of my dog, and get ready for work too!

9: Select

The power of extreme criteria

What are leadership skills one needs to thrive in an organization? In my opinion, the strongest leaders have an advanced set of criteria in which they make all their decisions.

Making decisions can be challenging for leaders for a number of reasons, but decision making can be simple according to Greg McKeown.

The key is in the work you do before making decisions.

Pat Lencioni has written on how important values are to an organization and how decisions should be filtered through those values.

Chapter 9 Notes

Extreme criteria

I love the idea Greg presents in Chapter 9. According to him, “If the answer is not a definite ‘Yes,’ then the answer is ‘No!’

I don’t know about you, but this idea would have served me well years ago!

[Tweet “If the answer is not a definite yes, then the answer is no #essentialism #leadership #blbs @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

90 percent rule

When you are making decisions grade each decision 0-100. If the score is not 90 or better, then the answer is no!

Challenge to myself

  • Reread the Gospels to see how Jesus made decisions
  • Read biographies to see how influential people make decisions
  • Interview current leaders to gauge how they make decisions

Essentialist decision framework (hint: it’s not rolling dice)

The following idea is found on page 111 of Essentialism:

  • First list the opportunity
  • Second establish 3 pieces of minimum criteria
  • This will help all leaders making decisions. If an opportunity doesn’t pass all three minimum criteria, then the answer is no
  • Finally establish three extreme criteria
  • Extreme criteria is what separates individuals with strong leadership skills from those with weak ones
  • This criteria is the “ideal” criteria
  • An opportunity must pass 2/3 of the extreme criteria for you to say yes

Personally, I used this example in making decisions when I recently chose an additional mutual fund to invest in.

A year or so ago, I found myself with a little extra cash that I wanted to invest so the opportunity was just that … to invest in a new mutual fund or ETF.

My 3 minimum criteria:

  • It had to be a Vanguard fund
  • with a low expense ratio <50%
  • and $3000 would get me into the fund

My 3 extreme criteria:

  • 10% or higher growth on 1 year, 5 year, 10 year, and since inception charts
  • with a conservative, less risky, approach to growth
  • and a 5 star Morningstar rating

Applying this decision making framework to my opportunity I was able to whittle a list of 7 mutual funds down to 3.

Since I’m not an investor, nor is that the purpose of this blog, I’m not going to share which fund I ultimately chose. Just know that it has been a winner in my portfolio and this making decisions framework does the job!

If an opportunity can pass minimum and 2/3 of extreme criteria, a leader can sleep soundly knowing she made the best decision possible.

Call to Action

Identify all the opportunities facing you in the next week. Write each opportunity on the sticky. Look at each opportunity and ask yourself, “Is this opportunity a ‘Hell Yes?!?'” If the answer is not an enthusiastic yes, then say no to that opportunity.

10: Clarify

One decision that makes a thousand

What are the characteristics of an effective school principal?

In my opinion, the strongest leaders have an advanced set of criteria in which they make all their decisions.

In chapter 10, Greg McKeown goes one step deeper in order to clarify what really is essential.

Chapter 10 Notes

What is the most important question leaders can ask themselves?

What is my purpose?

Clarity around the answer to this question will yield greater results.

Another great question a leader can ask himself is “What do I want out of my career over the next 5 years?”

Essentialism Intent

Leaders should seek clarity in order to make decisions more:

  • concrete
  • inspirational
  • meaningful
  • measurable

By making the right decision now, leaders can eliminate 1000s of decisions later.

Imagine what you could accomplish if you eliminated 1000s of decisions you would usually make lacking clarity.

Martha Lane Fox

Greater clarity

Greg McKeown describes Martha in Chapter 10 of Essentialism as the U.K.’s first “Digital Champion.” When asked to create a description of her new role, Martha did not go for bland or jargon-filled mission statement.

This is how she described her and her team’s mission, “To get everyone in the U.K. online by the end of 2012.”

Jim Collins would call this a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Greg McKeown would call this creating clarity with essential intent.

This mission is

  • clear on purpose
  • inspiring
  • measurable

By creating a mission with a high level of clarity, Martha made one decision that would save her mental bandwidth on 1000s of decisions later.

Just by asking the question, “Will this help our team get everyone in the U.K. online by 2012?” her team was able to perform with crystal-clear clarity and focus.

Now that is an example of strong leadership skills!

Call to Action

Look at your mission or vision statement. Does it lack clarity? Is it uninspiring? Answer the following question and instantly add greater clarity and inspiration to your organization.

How will we know when we’re done?

By answering this question a leader can instantly and easily add clarity and inspiration to her organization.

The author of Essentialism, Greg McKeown, describes an incredible graduate course he took as a student at Stanford. He was tasked with looking at the mission and vision statements of countless non-profits. What he found was that most lacked clarity and were uninspiring.

For example, one 5 person non-profit made it there mission to completely end world hunger. Great goal, but probably not practical for a 5 person non-profit team.

This mission completely missed the mark and did not answer the question, “How will we know when we’re done?”

In contrast, Brad Pitt formed a non-profit after the carnage of Hurricane Katrina and this was their goal, “to build 150 affordable, green, storm resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward” (McKeown, 2014, p. 128).

This is an obvious example of a mission with much greater clarity than ending world hunger. It also seems to be more inspirational too.

Does your mission or vision need an upgrade?

11: Dare

The power of a graceful no

Speaking of a graceful “No,” I like to call that “developing a soft no.” This phrase of mine I share in a free gift I want to give you called 15 Phrases of Effective School Leaders.

This gift is a 10 minute mp3 where I share and briefly unpack the phrases that have served me extremely well over the years in different leadership positions … phrases just like “developing a soft no.”

You can grab it now by clicking the picture in the side bar.

Being able to say no is definitely a leadership skill you should take seriously.

Chapter 11 Notes

I dare you to say “no.”

  • You must have courage to say no and live as an essentialist
  • Failure to say no and what happens as a result is worse than the repercussions of saying yes and the other violations that occur or the discomfort of saying no / awkward interaction
  • Say no firmly, resolutely, and gracefully
  • Say yes only to what really matters

Tips to Say No

  • Separate the person from the situation
  • Say no without using the word no
  • I’m overcommitted
  • I don’t have the bandwidth
  • I don’t have the capacity
  • Focus on the trade-off (if you say yes what are you giving up?)
  • Everyone is selling something (be aware people are trying to influence you … is it worth your time and is it worth your yes?
  • Be at peace that you trade popularity for respect by saying no
  • A clear no is more valuable than stringing someone along

Call to Action

Saying “No” to things can quite possibly be one of the hardest things for us to do as leaders, but our success is determined by our ability to say no.

Think of it this way … we all can agree that the top leaders have a legendary sense of focus. They only say “Yes” to actions and opportunities that will move the needle on their mission and vision. If an opportunity presents itself, will your “Yes” move the needle? If not, then you know the answer and I dare you to use it!

Today’s call-to-action is to choose one idea from the leadership insights (tips to say “no”) above.

Choose one of those tips and work it into your vocabulary.

12: Uncommit

Win by cutting your losses

Too often we get caught up in a sunk cost bias. I will explain what that is in the chapter notes, but it is important to remember that one can still win by cutting losses. Sunk cost bias gets in the way of that.

Last chapter talked how to develop a graceful “No.” This is also a key to avoiding sunk cost bias and being able to effectively uncommit from things that aren’t moving the needle in your organization.

Remember the Pareto Principle?  If 20% of your actions lead to the majority of your positive results, there is a lot of stuff to uncommit from.

Chapter 12 Notes

Sunk cost bias

  • The idea that because one already has invested resources (money or time), one must stick with it … even when it is a losing idea.


  • Concorde jet
  • Sitting through a terrible movie

Essentialist questions to ask

  • How can I better use my time?
  • Would I invest in this area if I had to already?

It’s okay to cut losses!!!

Commitment traps

The endowment effect

  • I own it so it’s valuable

Antidote … Pretend you don’t own it yet. How much would you invest in “X,” if you didn’t already own it?

Get over the fear of waste … admit failure to begin success.

Don’t force it … get a second opinion.

Call to Action

To uncommit is a powerful Essentialist strategy.

There are many tasks a school leader needs to complete day-to-day.

Some are forced upon us by the district, state, or nation. Others we impose on ourselves and despite their ineffectiveness we stick with them (sunk cost bias).

My challenge to you today is to ask this question and apply it to everything you do, “Would I invest in this area if I had not already?”

If the answer is no, it is time to cut ties and move toward greater impact. That is leadership.

13: Edit

The invisible art

I really enjoy the idea of comparing editing to art because it’s true. We’ve all heard the idea that less is more.

I like simplicity in a finished design and editing is the only way to get there.

Chapter 13 Notes

What is editing?

  • The strict elimination of what is trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant
  • It is not merely saying no or eliminating
  • By subtracting an editor actually adds to the project or idea
  • Editing is about trade-offs — will “X” make the total project better?

The Edit Life

  • Cut out options — easier, better decisions with fewer options
  • Condense — eliminate multiple meaningless activities with one meaningful activity
  • Correct — is this activity important to our core purpose?
  • Edit less — do less and observe before contributing

Call to Action

Editing is an important skill. Reflect on the following question and apply to your life.

What can I cut out of my life and work that is meaningless and life draining instead of powerful and life giving?

14: Limit

The freedom of setting boundaries

Countless times I have been thankful for the boundaries I have set up for myself. Making decisions now about what my priorities are and how I will budget my time and money takes great effort in the beginning, but leads to greater peace when opportunities arise.

For example, the goal of Better Leaders Better Schools is to create winning cultures, focus on the essential, and lead with courage and integrity.

As opportunities come up I filter it through the previously stated mission. I only move forward on opportunities that align with the mission even if the idea is profitable.

Chapter 14 Notes

Boundaries are powerful

  • Setting limits actually multiplies your impact

How do we set solid boundaries?

Don’t rob people of their problems — If you solve someone’s problem they never will.

Boundaries = liberation — Imagine a school that is built next to a busy road. Each day as the students go out for recess the adults monitoring the playground near the busy road are incredibly stressed out. Once a fence was built, the adults were liberated from their stress.

Find deal breakers — Write down your boundaries. If you have trouble identifying your boundaries then list all the times you felt violated and reverse engineer from there.

Social contracts — Here are two helpful phrases, “Let’s agree on what we want to achieve on this project” and “here are a couple things that really matter to me.”

By using these phrases and answering them honestly prior to investing your precious time, creativity, and work you have a much better chance of honoring yourself and others through any given project.

Call to Action

Do you have a sense of what boundaries would liberate you at work or home? If not, start that list right away!

15: Buffer

The unfair advantage

Buffer acts like a boundary — it gives you space to decrease stress involved in almost every event.

Driving in Chicago can be stressful to say the least.

I visit a counselor once a month to discuss life. My appointments are always during the day and the office is downtown where Chicago is busiest during a work weekday.

To find parking and arrive on time (as the appointment starts) was uncommon and wishful thinking.

It’s not like I left late.

The problem is that stuff always comes up driving downtown and as unforeseen obstacles come up my stress level would dramatically increase.

The solution?

I created buffer in my life by leaving ridiculously early for my appointments.

Now I am able to avoid all obstacles, find parking, catch my breath, and actually get mentally prepared for the session. That is the power of buffer.

Chapter 15 Notes

The only thing predictable is unpredictability

  • Therefore, we must create a buffer.


  • Something that prevents two things from coming into contact with each other and causing harm
  • Non-essentialists assume perfect scenario
  • Consider adding buffer to your calendar between events
  • Buffer provides “wiggle room”

How do I create a buffer?

  • Use extreme preparation — plan like crazy!
  • Add 50% to your time preparedness — If you plan a task taking 60 minutes actually plan for 90 minutes

Conduct scenario planning — create a risk management strategy

  • What risks do we face on this project?
  • What is the worst-case scenario?
  • What would the social effects of this be?
  • What would the financial impact of this be?
  • How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

Call to Action

I cannot predict or anticipate all events. By creating a buffer I can guard against the negative impact of a worst case scenario.

Look through your calendar and add buffer to in between all your events.

16: Subtract

Bring forth more by removing obstacles

Are you enjoying this Essentialism book summary?

I hope that by reading it you are able to develop your leadership capacity.

One key to leadership is to listen and look for obstacles blocking the progress of your organization — and get rid of them!

Chapter 16 Notes

“The Goal” business parable

Progress / improvement is catapulted by identifying the organizations “constraints.”

In this parable the author describes a group of Boy Scouts that were hiking to their camp site. Most of the boys could hike just fine, except one boy — Herbie.

The Scout master tries a variety of methods to either get Herbie to catch up to the group or to get the entire group to slow down.

All these attempts to keep the boys together while hiking failed.

The scout master finally decides to line the boys up from slowest to fastest with Herbie in the front of the line.

The result works perfectly.

Herbie leads and all the boys are able to walk in one uniform line.


  • Obstacles that hold the entire organization back
  • What is my “Herbie” or slowest walker?
  • How can I make things easier and more efficient for Herbie?
  • What is getting in the way of what is essential?

Remove obstacles

1) Produce more by removing more

Aristotle had three views of work

  • theoretical — end goal is truth
  • practical — objective is action
  • poietical — “bringing faith”

Essentialists produce more by removing constraints and obstacles.

2) Be clear about essential intent

  • Can’t remove obstacles unless we our clear on the end goal
  • How will we know when we are done?
  • What is the evidence of achieving the project?

3 ) Identify the “slowest hiker”

  • What are the obstacles between me and completing this?
  • What is keeping me from completing this?
  • Make a list of obstacles
  • Even good things can be obstacles

4) Remove the obstacle

Call to Action

Identify the “Herbie” on a current project your are working on and then deal with the obstacle!

17: Progress

The power of small wins

I love setting SMART goals.

Bill Hybel’s often talks about moving an organization from here to there.

The basic idea is that people get comfortable even in an organization that is doing well.

So the leader needs to stir the pot to make the current reality less comfortable and paint an inspiring picture of where the organization is headed.

SMART goals do this in many ways — especially by creating small wins for the team.

Chapter 17 Notes

Positive Tickets

Police used positive tickets in Richmond, Canada and crime recidivism dropped from 60% to 8%.

Key Skills

Small wins — start small and get big results. Celebrate small acts of progress.

Henry B Eyring — Organizations improve through small changes we could make in the things we do often.

There is power in steadiness and repetition. I think of that as the value in consistency.

We have a choice — Set up a system that makes goodness easy or a system that makes it harder to do what is good. The former idea wins.

There is a great parenting idea on page 198-199 called the Token System.

Minimal viable product — Done is better than perfect.

What is the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the customer?

Call to Action

Look at your most repetitive tasks.

Can you hand any of them off?

Can you make a small tweak that will lead to greater efficiency?

18: Flow

The genuine of routine

What did you wear to work this morning?

What did you eat for lunch today?

Building routines are an important life hack that essentialist leaders rely on where ever possible.

Routines lead to efficiency and save mental power to decisions that truly matter.

I don’t know about you, but when I pick my clothes out and make my lunch the night before my mornings run a whole lot smoother.

At work I rely on routines by harnessing the power of my calendar and scheduling the major tasks I need to get done for each work day.

Chapter 18 Notes

Routine is powerful

  • solidifies what is essential
  • makes the essential the default position
  • routines remove obstacles

Creating the right routine

Overhaul triggers by replacing bad habits with positive ones using the same trigger.

McKeown describes how he got into the habit of journaling consistently — by packing a journal next to his cell phone.

When he took his phone out of the bag, McKeown would see his journal and begin to write.

Create new triggers and routines by ensuring it occurs at the same time each day.

Tackle the most difficult thing 1st each day.

Call to Action

Construct a routine in one area you currently are inconsistent and would benefit from regular engagement.

19: Focus

What’s important now?


John Lee Dumas coined the acronym FOCUS on his great podcast EoFire — Follow One Course Until Success.

There is tremendous benefits to leaders that can focus throughout the day.

Chapter 19 Notes

Position yourself for a win

  • Ask yourself, What is most important right now?
  • Be present by utilizing kairos (an opportune moment) in order to focus
  • Focus on the present
  • Enjoy the now

How to be present

  • Figure out what is most important
  • Get the future out of your head
  • Prioritize
  • Pause to refresh.
    • When you come home take a deep breath before entering your home
    • Exhale and forget about your work
    • Be present inside your home
  • Tune into kairos and note when you get in it.
    • What triggered it?
    • What lost it?
    • Try to recreate it

Call to Action

Give yourself permission to pause and take frequent breaks throughout the day. These breaks will translate to greater focus and thus greater impact during each day.

20: Be

The essentialist life

I really hope you enjoyed this leadership book report.

In fact, if you did enjoy it I guarantee you will enjoy my 2015 Global Leadership Summit Report.

Chapter 20 Notes

Essentialism is not something you do … it is something you are

Essentialism is a choice

How does it improve life?

  • increases clarity
  • increases control
  • increases joy in the moment

Call to Action

If you enjoyed this leadership book report, then consider picking up Essentialism through this link and go deeper into the content.

Did you enjoy this leadership book report?  If you did then please share via social media.

[Tweet “Check out this leadership book report on Essentialism @_BetterSchools http://bit.ly/1MLHGE7”]

“untitled” by Ben Rosett licensed via CC2.0


Daniel E. Bauer is a BOSS


Skype: betterleadersbetterschools

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I help school leaders Create a Winning Culture, Focus on the Essential, and Lead with Courage and Integrity.

P.S. I wrote a short eBook highlighting what I learned from this year’s WCA Global Leadership Summit.