Lead by example, not by always saying “yes”

- Nicole Byrne

In life, there are many reasons to say no to do something: lack of resources, disagreements, or a lack of a shared vision between team members. This is a topic often discussed in class, due to the fact that it can be hard to say no. However, in a popular quote by Tony Blair he notes, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” I could not personally relate to this quote more, as many of us voiced how we felt about this topic. As developing leaders, we must realize that when people ask things of us, they are coming to us for assistance. However, we must also realize that it is okay to respond “no,” so long as it is done respectfully and with tact. So, how does one say no, while keeping their team motivated?

Depending on what you read, there are several tips and tricks that can help you move past this sort of sticky situation. Surprisingly, it is suggested that the best way to say no is to say yes. Counterintuitive, right? Or so you would think. Experts suggest finding a more compelling vision or goal to say yes to. If the first proposed idea is not one that could or should be ran with, it is okay to say yes to a second or third idea, especially if it means getting more connection from your team. However, the new yes must something that is deliverable. You must create a groundwork that allows your no’s to be respected. This is because while you may shoot down an idea every once in a while, you will deliver on the yes’s that you do promise your team. If someone asks you to attend a certain meeting, or do them a favor, it is definitely okay to respond with a counter-offer which delivers on a different yes, while still shooting the initial offer down. For example, Cathy Jacob notes when asked to do a project for someone at work, she may turn someone down, as she is habitually busy. However, she said she would offer to spend twenty minutes or half an hour teaching them how to do the task themselves, so that both may profit from the interaction.

Basically, what Jacob is saying is that if you want to say no, do not be afraid to do so. According to Jacob, it is important to be strong when saying no. This does not make you condescending or belligerent. Rather, it makes you a confident leader. She calls this speaking with “jaw.” Speaking with jaw is her word for self-authority and confidence. If you believe in saying no, and you do so assertively, people will respond. If done correctly, you will not have to worry about whether people will believe you. When doing so, do not feel the need to be apologetic. As a leader, you need to worry about yourself and what is best for your team, and sometimes saying no is what is best. If you apologize, it looks like you are seeking for the person’s approval. According to Jacob, it comes off as a leader that is insincere and hard to connect to.

In order to justify your no’s to yourself and to others, it may be helpful to align your decisions with tasks and values you hold dear. When your decisions are more value based, they resonate more with you, as well as your audience. Are the yes’s you currently give based on what you value, or do you just not want to say no to people? It boils down to the question of what drives you, whether it be keeping yourself busy and trying to do the most for the most people, or trying to help those you care about most. This all needs to be a part of the decision making process, and others will learn to respect that. As a leader, you should not be afraid of what people with think when you exercise your right to say no. Saying no will, in fact, help you grow as a leader.

Part of the problem may be that as developing leaders, we currently connect saying no with a negative connotation. This makes us uncomfortable turning people down, because we feel like we are going to affect how they view us. We are afraid of the dissent that comes with turning down the things that people want from us, especially when it is someone that you care about. However, we need to reframe, refocus, and realize that we are human and therefore we cannot do everything the world may throw at us. The thinner we spread ourselves, the less attention we will be able to devote to each task, and therefore the less we will actually be able to put into things. Once you realize this, you may be able to implement the idea of values-based no’s into your life. In doing so, you realize that it is important for others to be able to count on you and rely on you to come through for them. And while this is true, you need to say no when you cannot fulfill the things required to deliver on the yes, and that is perfectly okay. Another quote related to this notion is by Peter Block, who notes, “If we cannot say no, then our yes has no meaning.”

All in all, I think it is important to do as much as we can, but realize that when we’ve had enough, or when we cannot deliver on our promises, that it is okay to say no. It is okay to say no and no matter what others may say, we are allowed to look our for ourselves and our team. We are human, and therefore cannot do everything. As was mentioned in a previous post, how much is too much? This is something you need to answer yourself, and implement into your leadership style. Doing so will give more authenticity to your leadership, and will give more of a punch to your yes’s.

A large part of our class is the so what? Why does this matter? Why do we need this sense of transparent authority? Cathy Jacob mentions in her article that this ability to say no with grace is an art that has been lost in modern leadership. We often judge our interactions with others based on quantity, not quality, and this in turn leads to us doing as much as we can, and saying no as little as possible. However, she notes, that saying no can lead to better results within a team, with better decisions being made. She then talks about how the ability to say no goes hand-in-hand with the ability to focus and discern the important things from those which are less important. For the few people that do it well, kudos. For everyone else, there are many of us that struggle. Using the tips and tricks above will bolster your leadership capabilities and allow you to garner more respect with those you interact with in a leadership setting.





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