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Want to be a Great Leader? Learn to Say No.

NO is a big-deal word. Just saying it can free up the person saying it while totally crushing the person who receives the no. Because of this, some leaders are too afraid to say no when they really should. Or they misuse and abuse their ability to say no.


I’m not a fan of conflict or disappointing people. So I completely understand the temptation to try to please everyone and just agree with everyone. But it never ends well. Everyone needs to learn to say no sometimes because it truly benefits everyone.


Saying no sometimes allows you and your team to focus on what’s most important. If you don’t say no to some of your ideas and the thoughts of others, you will not be able to focus on the things that are vital. The leader must be able to make daily decisions that steer your team in the right direction. You can’t do it if you love to say no or can’t say no. You have to have the courage and conviction to make the right decisions.


You must remember that you have to start by making good decisions for yourself. You have to be able to say no sometimes for the good of your health and your family. Many good leaders have shortened their lives and weakened their effectiveness because they couldn’t say no to work for the bigger and most lasting issues. Time away from work can actually help you work better, with new perspective and energy.


Saying no can empower others. A no from you can create an opportunity for someone else to get to say yes. Even the best of leaders can’t do everything alone. It’s too stressful for you, and it keeps others from much-needed learning opportunities. If you learn to delegate well, it will let people stretch themselves and grow their abilities. It will build self-esteem, trust, and confidence as they see that you have confidence they can get the job done.


Sometimes it is necessary to say no so a bad idea can die. This is a tough one. Sometimes we hear an idea and we know it’s not a good idea straight out of the gate. But we care about the person who gave it. We want to be nice and encouraging. But if the idea is not good, if it will blow the budget, harm the brand, or take energy away from the core responsibility, the best thing is to just say no. When you say no, you save the other person from eventual failure, and if you clarify the reason for saying no, it provides a great opportunity to discuss what you are really looking for and how they can help.


It's harder but also necessary to sometimes say no so a good idea can die. Sometimes the idea is great, but it’s not the right time. Or you don’t have enough time to do it right. Sometimes saying no keeps you from diverting energy from something more important. You must remember, as the leader you have information to which the rest of the team is likely not privy. You know that saying yes might have rippling negative effects. You need to say no and feel good about it.


No matter how many good reasons there are to say no, it is hard to hear and can be a demotivator. How can a leader lead well when they must say no?

  • Don’t say no without listening first. For sure, never interrupt. Show them that you value their time and thoughts.

  • Ask questions before you say no. It will show you are truly paying attention. You may even find out information you can use from the idea later or in another department.

  • Give your no a reason. Explain why. This will help them understand and give them confidence to keep having ideas.

  • Always make encouragement your last word. Thank them and encourage them to continue sharing.

  • Don’t be ambiguous. Be clear. Don’t say “maybe” or “let me think about it” if you are simply delaying the no. It’s not kind to give unrealistic hope, encouraging them to waste time.

Learning to say no well is a leadership essential. Valia Glytsis, CEO and founder of The Paradox of Leadership, says, “A key part of demonstrating what you stand for is to learn how to “start choosing what to say yes and no to.” To do that, it is necessary to learn how to respond rather than react and understand that a response is a choice while a reaction is a habit.


When listening and evaluating ideas, Valia recommends getting curious rather than judgmental of others because “the brain cannot be curious and judgmental at the same time.” She also reminds us that we spend our energy on decisions, and we need to invest that energy in good decisions, like saying no when it is wisest to do so.


“It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are truly helpful.” – Steve Jobs

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