A Leader’s Default Answer Must Be “No”

I have a relative whose job at one time was to find all the problems with all the big equipment the company was trying to design. In effect, he had to expose all the design flaws in what the designers were trying to build and show why it would not work. From an economic perspective, it was important for him to find why it wouldn’t work out before they would actually start building it. From a safety perspective, it was important for them not to create something that would end up malfunctioning. As a result of faithfully doing his job, he got tagged with the nickname of “Dr. No” because of his default answer.

As a leader, you are tugged in different directions all the time. Some people want you to do one thing, and others want you to do something else. You are constantly being asked to do things that are outside the scope of your focus. And your default answer must be “no.”

It’s not easy saying “no.” But that’s why you’re the leader. It’s important for you to focus on where you know you need to go. You can’t do what others will suggest most of the time. That’s why you have to be prepared to say “no” most of the time.

There are three reasons why your default answer must be “no.”


1. Saying “no” raises the bar.


If you’ve ever seen pole vaulting, you see how these athletes will take a running start, stab a pole in the ground, and then hoist themselves over a horizontal bar hanging between two vertical bars. The key is to go over the horizontal bar without knocking down that bar. What distinguishes pole vaulting athletes is getting over the bar even when the bar gets raised.

If you say “no” most of the time, the people around you will raise the bar for themselves. They will not bring cockamamie ideas to you. They will know that you will not say “yes” to just anything they bring to you. As a result, they will be more selective of what they suggest to you. They will have to make sure that it clears their own bar before they are willing to try to get it over your bar.

When people around you realize that you will say “no” to most things, they will realize they have to work harder to convince you that it’s the right thing to do. They will know that before they come to you, they will have to do their homework. You will get better and more thought-out ideas brought to you. They will know that your default answer is “no,” so they will have to work harder to make it a “yes.”


2. A default answer of “no” means a stronger “yes.”


D.L. Moody said, “Give me a man who says, ‘This one thing I do,’ and not ‘These fifty things I dabble in.’” He understood the importance of having a default answer of “no.” He knew that the man who will say “no” to the fifty things will have a stronger “yes” to that one thing.

When you are in the position of always saying “no,” then it’s a big deal when you do say “yes.” That means you will be more committed to the few things that you say “yes” to. And you will avoid being pulled in many different directions.

When I work with clients on strategic planning, I tell them that the benefits of a strategic plan are manifold. Strategic planning helps you revisit (but not necessarily revise) your core fundamentals, i.e., mission, vision, values, customer, and purpose. Then based on those fundamentals, strategic planning helps you determine your priorities by evaluating your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. And based on your priorities, you can develop your goals and objectives for the next three to five years. As a result, strategic planning identifies the few things you will say “yes” to, and it gives you the perspective to say “no” to everything else.


3. Saying “no” protects what’s important.


The Apostle Paul said, “this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,  I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Paul had a singleness of focus which allowed him to say “yes” to the call of God and say “no” to everything else.

You will provide more stability to those around you when you are committed to fewer things. They are looking for you to guide the ship and to provide direction. They need to know that your priorities will stay fixed and they can rely on your leadership to be solid. And when they know your priorities, they will know you can be counted on to protect those priorities.

It is important for you as a leader to be consistent in saying “no.” People are counting on you. They need to know to do their homework before they come to you. They need to know that when you say “yes,” that you mean “yes.” And that you will definitively say “no” the rest of the time. Your team may not necessarily like the fact that your default answer is “no,” but they will learn to appreciate the benefits that it provides.


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This article first appeared on www.RobertMcFarland.net
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