Seeing the wood for the trees: A minimalist approach to leadership

Douglas Lang is taking a minimalist challenge – getting rid of the clutter. He asks what ‘clutter’ does a good leader need to get rid of? 

Over the past few months I’ve been exploring simplification and minimalism and applying a number of associated techniques to my life. Right now my wife and I are in the middle of a minimalist challenge ( which will result in both of us removing 450 unnecessary/unwanted items from our home (clothes; electronics; old tools, etc. etc.) by the end of the month.

One of the immediate benefits I’ve noticed since I started is a feeling of ‘space’ and lightness that comes from knowing you are removing things from your life that aren’t really adding any real value and are taking up valuable physical and mental space.

Having seen the benefits coming through in my personal life, I was prompted to think about what the parallel would be in the leadership space. What would a minimalist approach to leadership look like? How could we ‘do’ leadership in a way that is intentional and focused on what’s important and is about making a measurable difference?

You don’t have to look far on the web or in bookshops to observe lots of ‘clutter’ around the leadership space. Everyone and his dog has a theory or a model on the key elements that make for excellent leaders and high performance in teams. 

I’m not saying there aren’t some great insights in, and amongst, the mass of information about leadership or to claim that I know any better than anyone else what the ‘best’ approach is. However it seems to me that the good old 80/20 rule very definitely applies to leadership. 

In my experience probably 20 percent of what a good leader does has 80 percent of the positive impact. How great would it be if we could synthesise what that core 20 percent was and encourage more leaders to ‘just do that’. Don’t try and do everything – just do that and be confident that you will have an impact.

When my wardrobe is full of shirts and jeans and jackets that haven’t been worn for a long time (and in truth are never likely to be worn) I find it difficult to select what I’m looking to wear on a particular day. With too much choice it takes me a long time to decide, and then I end up choosing one of my old favourites anyway or, I miss out on the killer outfit that I forget is in there because I can’t see it for all the other things in there.

I have a feeling that many leaders today are struggling in a similar way with finding the best leadership tools and techniques to use – either because they get so confused with the variety that are available or they give up because they can’t see the wood for the trees. So either they stick with the tried and tested (which may not be the best thing) or they give up.

To identify the few things (the 20 percent) that make the maximum impact on people I’ve recently been asking the leaders I work with to think about ‘The one thing you wish your boss would do more often that would allow you to perform to your full potential’. 

Some of the early comments have been around relatively ‘simple’ things to implement like ‘Talk to me more’; ‘Let me know when I’m doing a good job as well as when I’m not’; ‘Trust me and don’t expect me to do the job the same way you would’.

I’m curious to know what you would like your boss to do more often to allow you to perform to your full potential. I’m pretty sure there will be a core subset of elements that, if practised often and well enough, would make a huge difference to the way people lead. Once you’ve identified what it is, why not let them know so they have a chance to do it? And maybe ask your people to let you know what you could do too?

I’m keen to keep the conversation going and will look to share some of the wisdom that comes from asking this question in the future.

Now back to sorting through that wardrobe! Will I really need that tie-dye tee-shirt?


Douglas Lang is the director of Altris Ltd


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