The NO Conundrum

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

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
Steve Jobs

Like everyone else, I have found it easier to say yes—and avoid the relationship turmoil—than to say no (At least, if you care about the person). Consistently making these hard calls is the make or break leadership lesson we all face.

But I also recognize that our culture values the leader who doesn’t take no for an answer.
There is definitely a tension between being a leader who says no, and being a leader who accepts no. Culturally, we embrace one and reject the other.
When the vision is clear, we say no to anything that dilutes our focus.
When the vision is clear, we work any angle we can to avoid a no that stands in the way of our goal.
Accepting no is viewed as weak and quitting.
Saying no is viewed as strong and focused.

Just this past week, I had to walk through two situations where I had to tell people no. Their responses illustrate this tension very well. And though this tension may be real, I wonder if we have thought through the consequences of our actions.

A tale of two situations

In the first situation, we debated the pros and cons, and they stated their case with data. When it still turned out to be no, they were clear they did not agree, but would abide by the decision. Part of our discussion included things we could say yes to, although this one thing was a no.

What was the net result (from my perspective)?
My respect increased.
I’m more willing to help them in the future since they showed a willingness to help me. In a very real since they were willing to work with me. With. Me. That’s pretty special.
They valued the relationship and earned relationship clout because of it.

The second situation did not go so well. After I told them no, they did not engage in any discussion, but chose to run around me to my supervisor. They chose to work the system and not work with me.

What was the net result (from my perspective)?
My respect decreased.
I’m less willing to help them since they showed no interest in helping me.
They were/are most concerned with themselves. They proved they never really had been interested in working with me. I was a means to an end. When they failed to get what they wanted, they moved on.
They ignored the relationship with me and even burnt relationship clout up the chain.

Will I forgive the person who didn’t accept no? Of course. I’ll actively even forget about this “offense”. It’s not worth carrying around that’s for sure.

Super simple takeaways

Sometimes we do need to say no. It is a mark of true leadership. Sometimes we need to accept no. It is also a mark of true leadership. And how we work through that matters a great deal. It takes character to say no, but it also takes character to hear no.

So my takeaway is less about what happened to me and more about using this situation as a filter to examine my own behavior.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how great of a Christian leader we claim to be. It matters how we treat the people around us. How we respond to the word no is a great indicator of our true character.


2 thoughts on “The NO Conundrum

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote. Thank you for the reminder that our character is always on display and always matters. It’s easier for me to hear “no” for an ask for help than it is for a passion or a desire that I have and want to communicate. Your posts always make me think and often re-evaluate. Keep them coming please.

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