The Art of Leadership Is Saying "No"

According to a recent TIME Magazine article, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair believes that “the art of leadership is saying no, not yes.” In fact, both Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple, and Warren Buffet, the renowned investment guru, share that conviction. As Buffet puts it, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

In my own 35 years of experience as a management consultant to social justice leaders, I have seen over and over again how critical their ability to say “no” is to the effectiveness and impact of their organizations. The organizations I’ve seen that strategically selected and tightly focused their activities were invariably more successful at achieving their social and political goals than those that did not.No diceThe problem is that there are many powerful forces that work against an organization’s ability to maintain focus:

  • The more successful an organization becomes, the more opportunities come its way, and the more it’s pulled in different directions.
  • Boards, staffs, funders, and other stakeholders may all have different ideas about what’s most important for the organization to do, and the path of least resistance is to try to do it all.
  • Organizations are typically disinclined to turn away from any chance to get funding, even if that funding takes them far afield from their central goals.

 Leaders must be hard-nosed and disciplined if they’re not to fall into these traps. Many, however, find it tough to do that. Female leaders, I’ve observed, tend to have an especially hard time saying “no.” Some are so eager to please and so loath to make anyone unhappy that they won’t turn anyone down. Others are so concerned about inclusiveness that they’re reluctant to leave anyone or anything out. Still others are averse to conflict, so when there’s disagreement among the staff or board about what the organization’s priorities should be, they try to find a way of making everything fit.When leaders fail to say “no,” organizations become stretched so thin that that they can no longer do anything really thoroughly or well. By diffusing their staff and resources instead of concentrating them on a well-defined area of focus, these leaders limit their organization’s effectiveness and prevent it from having a substantial impact.If you want superior results, you must pick and choose carefully and pursue only the very best ideas. As Steve Jobs said, “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 100 other good ideas that there are.”Leaders will know that they have reached a new stage of maturity when they turn down an almost irresistible opportunity because it would have diverted resources from the central, most important goals of the organization.