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Leading Yourself: Just Say "No"

I’m a strong believer that there is nothing new under the sun. While the details, places, or people might change, other aspects of human interactions generally never do - like the tendency or inability to just say “No.” when we really mean it. Know that I count myself squarely in that number; however, I want to do better, starting today.


We have three basic options when someone asks us to do something, to be some place, or to make a commitment. We can say “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”. Some people qualify their answers by saying, “Yes, if my husband agrees.”, or “No, unless you select another restaurant that doesn’t serve seafood.” Arguably, “Maybe.” is probably the clearest response in these two examples, but at least the respondent has informed the other person of some contingency that, once worked out, should quickly lead to a definitive answer.


It gets more complicated when a relative, friend, or significant other needs a favor – let’s just say, to borrow money until the next payday. Instead of saying “No.” because we don’t have the extra cash, or we don’t trust the person will pay us back, one might hedge by saying, “I have to ask my wife first.” Now that response can be a bit comical or dishonest though, especially when the person is not inclined to ask his wife’s opinion or permission for anything else related to finances!

When it comes to our actual or potential business relationships, the stakes might get a little higher. A sales executive invests many hours planning and then pulls off a stellar presentation. The potential client promises to follow-up “soon”, even though he knows the price of the new service or product is not within the company’s budget. Then there’s the manager who has the authority to promote but, when asked about a timeline, she consistently tells an employee, “Maybe next year.” without further explanation. Notice that I described the latter person as a manager, not a leader.

Similarly, if we do not have the bandwidth to accept another volunteer position, it would be best to let the agency know right away so they can find someone else to fill the need. As my final example, consider the candidate for a new salaried position who might forego accepting a different position because the hiring manager chose to leave the candidate in limbo by saying “We’ll get back to you soon.”, instead of a categoric “No”. I do understand that human resources practices might limit what can be conveyed to candidates during interviews.


So, what’s my point?


We are all given the same 24 hours each day, seven days a week. Many of us plan and prioritize what we will do in that time, and there are often opportunity costs associated with our day-to-day decisions.

When we know that we cannot or do not want to take a certain action, the fair thing to do is just say so. As with the Biblical Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”), we should respect the priorities and limited resources of others even when those things don’t align with our own priorities and resources. This respect should then compel us to become more honest in the moment, and more comfortable just saying “No.” when that’s what we really mean.


As I shared in the beginning of this article, I still have work to do in the area of saying “No.” I’m just putting it out there in case you do too.

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