What if leadership is about saying NO?

Saying noDo you feel compelled to say YES to requests that come your way? Do you hold the belief that good leadership means being able to accomplish everything that comes your way? Is your ability to accommodate everyone else’s demands something you take pride in?

I have been thinking a lot about some of the beliefs I hold about leadership and how the leader carries the weight of responsibility. I think I was (note past tense!) guilty of being a leader who erred on the side of accommodating others’ and I definitely thrived on meeting expectations of those around me; supervisors, colleagues and subordinates. You name it – if they expected it, I delivered it. Looking back, I realize how incredibly exhausting and unproductive that was for me. Being a YES person a leader created a great deal of work and overwhelm for me, AND for my team. My desire to be a high-performer meant that everyone who worked for me was thrown into the same soup. This makes prioritizing work very difficult and in the end, it didn’t necessarily make me a very effective leader.

My new belief is that great leaders know when to say NO, and make strategic choices about what is possible to achieve with the resources available.

I was tested with this recently in my volunteer life, and when I finally said “NO”, I was shocked at how relieved I felt, and how much weight I had been carrying around when I was in YES mode. When I no longer said yes, and stood firmly in my values and beliefs around what was possible, I instantly felt lighter, even though it was incredibly difficult to “let others down” and not meet their expectations.

So how do we overcome our desire to say yes to everything that hits our radar? At an organizational level, it is essential for leaders to have clarity on the Vision, Mission and Strategic Priorities of the organization. This becomes your lens and filter for looking at opportunities that come forward through well-meaning board members and staff.

But how do you deal with the YES syndrome on a personal level? As usual, I defer to coaching questions as my source and inspiration for anything I am working on personally and with clients. One of the best coaching questions to remedy this habit comes from the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. As part of his 7 question formula, he asks the Strategic Question:

“If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?” Tweet This

A simple question. A complex answer in most cases, but it is exactly the question we need to ask ourselves EVERY SINGLE TIME WE SAY YES TO SOMETHING NEW!
If you are already overwhelmed, then of course something must come off the plate if something new is coming online. How do we create space for something new, if we don’t actually create the space to fit it in!

When I finally said no to my volunteer commitment, I created mental and emotional space in addition to another 3 – 4 hours per week that I am saying yes to more client work and creation of new programming for my clients. The time piece is easy to quantify, but more important is the emotional and mental weight that was lifted in this case. That is often incredibly hard to measure, and we often don’t notice its there until its gone. But think hard about this:

What could you say NO to, right now, that would create mental, emotional and physical space in your life or work?Tweet This

I wonder if your greatest act of leadership courage could be the simple act of saying NO.

Keep me posted!