Essentialist Leadership: Not trying to save the entire world

The world is turning to custard.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the youth of today are facing an increasingly ominous future.  Despite not creating the issues, we are bombarded by them on a daily basis through social media, and ultimately, it is who will have to fix them.  The sheer enormity of the many problems is completely overwhelming, and frankly, a little depressing. All we see is a future haze of unknowns.

Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, ask your average youth if they want to make a difference, and the resounding answer is “yes”.  They want to lead change.  Yet more often than not, what we actually see is only the odd action here or there, perhaps signing petition, or participating in Live Below the Line.  Then intentions are good, but there is little significant impact.  Why is there this gap between espoused values and actions?

For a start, these are not minor challenges.  These are adaptive challenges, rooted in what Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) call society’s self-propagating “broken system”. D’Souza and Renner (2014) say the issues we are currently facing can be described by the acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous).   Not one single person can single-handedly solve even one of the world’s problems, let alone all of them.


Furthermore, McKeown (2014) comments that when you are involved with too many separate activities which do not contribute to one meaningful whole, it is easy to fail your actual goal. Rather than consistently hammering the same nail, we are haphazardly whacking the odd one here or there.  This is not effective. Despite societal expectation, youth need to stop thinking they can do it all.  It is no wonder there is this gap between espoused values and actions, when youth are faced with the daunting prospect of an almost impossible challenge.

As shown in the video, a clear cut policy of essentialism needs to be adopted.

Just as Jimmy found, once peripheral elements are cleared, then you gain a focus to take action not only yourself, but to help others do the same.

Youth need to develop an “essential intent”.  McKeown (2014) describes this as a focus which is not only inspirational, but also concrete, meaningful and measurable.  You can think of it as a slogan or mission statement, crossed with a concrete goal.

To be honest, narrowing things down is tricky. By choosing to focus on one thing, you have to ask the tough questions about what matters to you, and make real tradeoffs (McKeown 2014). Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explain you are demoting other important issues such as poverty and water shortages, by choosing to focus on your orienting purpose, such as climate change. This is scary.  But being “Jack of all trades, master of none”, will not even begin to make a dent in the adaptive challenges we are facing.  Sarah Sammon (2015, pers.comm. 19 May), founder of Simply Rose Petals, asserts,

“If you want to be successful, then you need to stick to your focus.” 

McKeown (2014) comments that the most effective form of human motivation is progress, because a small concrete win, helps us to gather momentum and reaffirm our faith in a project.  When you have a narrowed goal and direction, you can see things happening.  Rather than a drop in the ocean of the world’s challenges, you can see change happening in your corner of the world.  As youth exercising leadership, this is not only important for your followers, but also for you.  Without clarity and confidence in your direction, and the belief you are truly making a difference, no matter how small, then how can you possibly inspire other people to make change on adaptive challenges?

Generation Zero are a youth-led organisation in New Zealand who are a good example of essentialism.  Although their wider focus is moving New Zealand towards a zero carbon future, in their Big Ask Report, they specifically focused on reducing carbon levels to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050 (Generation Zero 2014).  This goal is ambitious, so inspirational, but also concrete and measurable, making it a clear example of essentialist intent.

(Generation Zero 2014)
(Generation Zero 2014)

The Congestion Free Network is an ambitious initiative almost entirely conceived by Generation Zero to improve public transport.  The initiative was adopted by both the Green and Labour party as their official transport plan (Forsyth 2013), and had nationwide television coverage.  Despite their aspirational fossil free goal, by working on a micro-scale, Generation Zero had made tangible progress in a short amount of time, boosing confidence for further projects, and increasing their following.

Ultimately, the state the world is currently in, means youth need to get out there and make change.  But trying to do everything will not get anyone anywhere.  Youth should adopt an essentialist approach, and focus their energies to one issue, so they can convey this clarity to their followers and start leading change on adaptive challenges.


D’Souza S & Renner, D 2014, Not knowing: the art of turning uncertainty into opportunity. LID Publishing Ltd, London.

Forsyth, L 2013, ‘The congestion free network proposal’, Campbell Live, television program, 3news, 31 July, viewed 28 May 2015,

Generation Zero 2014, The big ask: one key step for real climate action, viewed 28 May 2015,

Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The practice of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

McKeown, G 2014, Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less. Crown Publishing, New York.

Meaning of Success: Donna Rose Addis

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Donna Rose Addis, an Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Auckland.  Coming from the low decile Aorere College, and with no family members with tertiary education, going to university was not the “done” thing.  Yet Addis now leads her own team at the University of Auckland Memory Lab, has done research at the University of Toronto and Harvard and won countless awards.

So from someone who has undoubtedly achieved success, what does success actually mean?

Addis explained that “success can be defined in many different ways… it’s what you make it to be.”  For her, it has been reaching the top of the world in her field, but it could simply be moving up the ranks at the local supermarket to manager.  However, this does not mean it will simply fall into your lap.  So what has contributed to Addis’ success?

De Bono (1985) commented that passion combined with good timing, is one source of success, and it is true, Addis is passionate about her research, and self-professes has had some good luck; however, I believe that ultimately, goals, resilience and hard work have been key to her accomplishments.

success smart art

Amazingly, the idea of goal setting, can actually be viewed through the lens of Addis’ research.  She focuses on memory, and has found that an individual’s ability to imagine their future, is based on memories of past experiences and exposures.  We are all “limited by experience, and expanded by our views.”  For Addis, leaving high school, she did not have a clear idea of where her life would take her, she thought maybe a history teacher.  Yet, as she became passionate about psychology, and inspired by her research supervisor, Lynette Tippett, she started to imagine a future she had never previously considered.

An example of this view expansion is when Addis was given a “vote of confidence” after finishing high school with a scholarship for being the highest achieving Pacific Island student. So she set the ambitious goal of finishing her degree without a student loan. This may seem like a fairly daunting task for many; however, Robson (2010) comments that people are hard wired to reach for goals and success far beyond the commonly perceived limits of possibility. Covey (2002) explains that having goals and direction is what is necessary to be highly effective, and Addis allowed her expanded horizon to build these ambitions.

Imagining future comic

Consequently, Addis, who “loves a challenge” got stuck in to applying for every scholarship she could find. This led to failure and rejection. Lots of it.  “For every 20 or 30 [scholarships] I applied for, I would get a small one.”  Despite the constant let-downs, Addis remained resilient, and did eventually graduate without a student loan.  Looking back she is not entirely sure how she dealt with it, but believes it was due to “locus of control,” meaning her perceived level of control over the rejections, and ability to separate herself as a person from outside factors. Robson (2010) supports this, explaining you have to evaluate much you actually contributed to the failure.  If it is out of your control, you simply must let go and move on.  Robson (2010) comments that resilience and deciding to create our own reality, are the seeds of success and this certainly applies to Addis.

Failure locus of control comic

Alongside goals and resilience, Addis says she always wants to “push myself and extend myself as much as I can.” This has meant a lot of hard work to get her where she is today.  Just as Gladwell (2008) explains 10,000 hours of effort are required to master a pursuit, Addis comments her success is, “all about hard work in the end.”  In particular, what we can learn from Addis is that hard work does not simply precipitate out of thin air, Addis is driven by her passion. We too should be driven by passion in the things with which we wish to succeed, as hardwork, although still hard, comes more easily.

Hardwork comic

Despite her considerable research success, Addis says the “best part” is returning to her roots.  She inspires students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in South Auckland, through talks on aspiring to personal success and getting excited about science.  Given her history there is no better person to connect with the students and show the heights that really can be achieved with goals, resilience and hard work. Although she commented that being “seen as super successful” can sometimes make her appear unattainable, talking with her I found her down to earth and incredibly genuine, so I can see why she succeeds in this pursuit also.  Ultimately, her research and work in the community really resonates with what Robson (2010) says, that doing something which has value for you, and with the motivation to help others, is to be successful.  This is Addis in a nutshell.

Find out more about Addis

Memory Lab

Brain Breaking Blog interview


Addis, D 2012, Inspiring islanders – Samoan scientist Donna-Rose Addis, online video, viewed 15 May 2015,

Covey, R 2002, The 7 habits of highly effective people, Franklin Covey, Salt Lake City.

De Bono, E 1985, Tactics: the art and science of success, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, Great Britain.

Gladwell, M 2008, Outliers: the story of success, Penguin Group, Australia.

Robson, T 2010, Failure is an option: how setbacks breed success, HarperCollinsPublishers, Sydney

Girls in Physics: The Difficulty Default

As a teenager studying physics and chemistry at school, and then going on into engineering, before now studying science, I have had the following conversation a number of times with girls a few years younger than me. Conversation on science with younger girls That I have this conversation with anyone is not ideal, but the thing is, I have only ever had it with females. Ever.

This worrying attitude to science is not just a one off situation either, it is a widespread societal issue. There is a general consensus that more girls are needed in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), even simply at a high school level. It is not an access issue, as most girls in the developed world do have the same opportunity to study science.  But they are choosing not to.  For some reason girls are being dissuaded from science, and in particular physics, but why?

Just like a Rubik’s cube, an adaptive leadership challenge is a complex situation, requiring many twists and turns to solve all sides. Girls not studying science, and in particular physics is a perfect example of an adaptive challenge.  Despite the many interlinked elements, I am going to focus on the default perception of difficulty.

Physics has a terrible reputation amongst girls.  Girls believe they cannot do it.  They often believe it is a boy’s subject.  This is a groundless belief, as there is no actual difference in cognitive ability between boys and girls as shown in the following infographic. Infographic on women in science So why is it seen as “sooo hard”?  Why is physics dropped without a good attempt?

Girls are not born saying, “physics is too challenging a pursuit for the feeble female mind.” Yet somewhere along the way society cultivates this mindset.  Pollack (2013) hypothesises that, “boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counsellors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” This attitude is coming from the very same society saying more girls need to study science and it suggests a systemic issue rather than one with just the girls themselves…

Dealing with adaptive leadership challenges can be explained in terms of “collective and individual disequilibrium” (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky 2009), which is analogous to the challenging process of learning. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explains that with disequilibrium comes pain from deep change, and it can cause conflict, panic and fear of losing something dear. These are difficult emotions to manage without the support of people around you.

The thing is, most people find physics challenging, but the surrounding support ensures that males remain within the “productive zone of disequilibrium” and go on to learn and understand the material. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explain this is the range of pressure in which things get done and changes get made.

The lack of support for girls, and the personal risk confronted when learning in a discipline where they need to overcome gender bias, means the disequilibrium experienced often moves beyond the limit of tolerance so the girls drop out.  They experience the “individual disequilibrium” as they engage with science.  Girls are not simply battling thermodynamics and wave particle theorems, but also pushing against traditional gender roles.  With so much obstruction to success, is it any wonder girls tend to opt for something else?  Difficulty in English for example, could be put down to lack or study, or lower individual ability. Whereas in physics, a girl may be accused of straying from her own domain.

Adaptive leadership is needed to deal with this.  Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) comment when disequilibrium is experienced as a result of dealing with an adaptive leadership challenge, those people exercising leadership must have compassion for the trials faced. We need to help girls navigate the difficulties they experience in studying physics.  Society currently dampens disequilibrium for males in science, by conveying a sense of capability, yet does the opposite for females, heightening fears and insecurities.

So why have we not already dealt to this difficulty default?  The status quo in science and physics has arisen from a wider inequality in genders. The inequality is self-propagating, as the “collective disequilibrium” that would arise from change is significant.

We need to turn this situation around and put society into a productive zone of disequilibrium by questioning the basis behind these gender stereotypes.  Then we might be able to help girls through the individual disequilibrium they struggle against in their studies of physics in science.  Let’s change girls’ default perception from to “difficult” to “doable”.


Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The practice of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Pollack, E 2013, ‘Why there are still so few women in science?’, The New York Times, 3 October, viewed 4 May 2015, VCAA

2014, ‘VCE Graded Assessment 2013’, Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, viewed 4 May 2015,