Great Leaders Say “No”

The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes. — Tony Blair

Leaders have to make hard decisions; and part of those hard decisions include turning someone or something down.

But the problem is that a lot of people in leadership positions never learn to say no because…well…. it was never taught to them.

You learn to share and be kind in school, but there’s no class that is dedicated to teaching how to say no. The only things I’ve ever formally learned to say no to are drugs and strangers.

Subsequently, you have people running around trying to do everything for everybody and be the best “leader” they can be. In actuality, those individuals need to understand their limits and know that all ideas don’t need to be acted upon immediately—if at all.

Saying no isn’t something you should feel guilty about doing. It establishes boundaries, sets priorities, and builds respect from your coworkers.

The key to doing it successfully lies in your tone and reasoning (the how and the why). Talk (or write) in a pleasant but firm manner and briefly—but directly—explain why you’re choosing to say no.

By all means, avoid being passive-aggressive. There is no great leader in history that ever hung his or her hat on the fact that they couldn’t handle confrontation head-on. Say what you mean and be straightforward about it.

Being the one to say no won’t get you the popularity vote, but that’s not what being a leader is about. It’s very tempting to want to appease everyone’s wants, but:

If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing. – Margaret Thatcher

(Seems like those former British Prime Ministers sure do know what they’re talking about…)

Hope Boyd
Written by:
Hope Boyd
Director of Communications, Strategic Government Resources

3 responses

  1. Hello Hope;
    You are so correct in that we are not formally taught to say no. Not being able to please everyone is something that both the secular and non-secular world agrees upon.

    Saying no to our children, bosses and co-workers is a difficult thing to do, but your advice to educate/explain your reasoning is right on!

  2. […] if you’re too busy to hold up your end of the bargain, don’t agree to do it. (Great leaders say, “No,” remember?) Besides, trust isn’t built upon good intentions—it’s built on dependable […]

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