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Subtracting: The Simplest Path to Effective Leadership

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When entrepreneurs think about improving their leadership skills, they often focus on adding new skills, knowledge, and behaviors. However, what we as entrepreneurs often overlook is the power of subtraction. In many cases, removing something from our leadership toolkit can be even more effective in helping us become better leaders.

By adopting subtraction, I am able to create the space necessary to focus on what really matters and prioritize my goals more effectively. In this article, I will explore the concept of subtraction as it relates to leadership, and how it helped me be a better team leader.

Understanding the Power of Subtraction

The idea of subtraction can seem counterintuitive, particularly when it comes to leadership. But as we’ll see shortly, removing things can often be just as effective as adding things when it comes to leadership. In fact, more often than not, removing things can be even more powerful.

One of the reasons subtraction can be so powerful is that it helps us focus on what really matters. By removing the extraneous, we can more easily see what is essential. In addition, subtraction can help us make better use of our time and resources by eliminating distractions and focusing on what is truly important.

Subtraction can also help us become more efficient and effective in our leadership roles. When we subtract things that are not serving us or our teams, we create space for more meaningful work. In addition, removing unnecessary tasks or activities can help us streamline our work, making us more productive and allowing us to achieve our goals more quickly.

The Principles of Subtraction in Team Leadership

To effectively apply subtraction in leading teams, it is important to keep in mind these four key principles:

  1. Start with a clear purpose: Before you can begin subtracting elements from your team’s processes or structure, it’s important to have a clear purpose and vision for what you want to achieve. This can help guide your decisions and ensure that any subtractions align with your team’s overall goals.
  2. Identify what’s essential: Take a step back and evaluate the various elements of your team’s processes or structure. Identify which ones are essential to achieving your team’s goals, and which ones may be extraneous or even hindering progress.
  3. Simplify processes and structures: Once you’ve identified what’s essential, work to simplify your team’s processes and structures as much as possible. This can involve removing steps, consolidating tasks, or even eliminating entire processes that are no longer needed. By simplifying, you can free up resources and improve efficiency.
  4. Continuously evaluate and adjust: Subtraction is not a one-time process. To get the most out of it, it’s important to continuously evaluate your team’s processes and structures and make adjustments as needed. Regularly assess what’s working and what’s not, and be willing to remove or simplify elements that are no longer contributing to your team’s success.

Now that we have our principles, while principles provide a guiding framework, habits are the actions that help us to embody those principles and translate them into our daily lives. Without consistent practice, principles can remain abstract concepts with little impact. Turning principles into habits means consciously applying them over and over again until they become second nature. This is especially important in leadership, where habits are the building blocks of a strong and effective leadership style.

Habits of Applying Subtraction to Leadership

Habits are the small actions and behaviors that we repeatedly perform on a daily basis, often without even thinking about them. They can be positive or negative, and can greatly impact our lives and the outcomes we achieve. Micro habits are tiny habits that are easy to do and take only a few seconds, but can have a significant impact over time. They can be used to help build larger habits or to make small changes in behavior that can lead to larger improvements in our lives.

As a proponent of “Atomic Habits”, the author James Clear argues that micro habits are essential because they allow for small, incremental improvements that accumulate over time to create significant change. Clear suggests that instead of focusing on large, lofty goals, individuals should instead focus on breaking down those goals into smaller, more manageable micro habits. By consistently implementing these tiny habits, individuals can gradually build momentum and achieve their larger goals.

Here is a list of five things that I am subtracting by working on these five habits:

1. Removing distractions: One of the most significant ways to practice subtraction is by removing distractions. This could be anything from unnecessary meetings to time-wasting activities. By eliminating these distractions, we can focus on what really matters, Rosen, C., & Smith, M. (2010).

2. Letting go of control: Many leaders feel the need to control every aspect of their team’s work. However, this can often be counterproductive. By letting go of control and empowering our teams, we can create more space for innovation and creativity, Zhang, X., & Bartol, K. M. (2010).

3. Stopping multitasking: Multitasking may seem like an effective way to get things done, but research shows that it can actually be counterproductive. By focusing on one task at a time, we can be more efficient and effective in our work, Rogers, R. D., & Monsell, S. (1995)Nass, C., & Compeau, D. (1994).

4. Eliminating unnecessary tasks: Take a look at your to-do list and identify tasks that are not essential. By eliminating these tasks, you can create space for more meaningful work, Newport, C. (2016).

5. Removing negativity: Negative thoughts and emotions can be a drain on our energy and motivation. By removing negativity from our lives, we can focus on the positive and be more effective leaders, Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005).

Eliminating some habits can be a difficult task that requires perseverance, and the journey is often riddled with setbacks and roadblocks. However, it’s important to stay committed to the process and not give up, as the long-term benefits of breaking negative habits are immeasurable.

Quoting James Clear’s book Atomic Habits once again in which he emphasizes that success comes not from achieving a perfect record but from continuously striving towards a better version of yourself, even if that means stumbling along the way. Through consistent effort and a growth mindset, the process of eliminating bad habits and cultivating good ones can become a rewarding and transformative experience.


Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.

Zhang, X., & Bartol, K. M. (2010). Linking empowering leadership and employee creativity: The influence of psychological empowerment, intrinsic motivation, and creative process engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(3), 588–599.

Rogers, R. D., & Monsell, S. (1995). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 21(6), 1265–1279.

Nass, C., & Compeau, D. (1994). The effects of multitasking on organizations. International Journal of Information Management, 14(5), 329–336.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition & Emotion, 19(3), 313–332.

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