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The freedom of “no”

4 min read


Most leaders I know are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of work that’s on their plates. Some of it’s important, but much of it wastes precious time with busywork that detracts from the important things they need to do to become or remain successful.

Yet without making the effort to think about their list of things they think they need to get done they continue to worry about how they’ll get it all done. By attempting to do it all, they sink into ineffectiveness as they lose energy, sleep, and focus.

Has anyone told you that your ability to get organized and focus efforts on what’s most important is a test of your ability to lead? Indeed it is, even if it’s not been made explicit. You must learn to say “no” to some things. Feeling the freedom of “no” allows you to focus on what’s most important for you and your organization to be successful. Saying “no” when appropriate frees you up to make that big impact you want to make, to inspire others, have a vision or develop the relationships that are essential to great leadership.

Courageous leaders say “no” in order to be most effective. You must:

Set aside time to get organized. For most leaders, reflection time is at a premium; but constant activity and reactivity will only diminish your ability to be successful. Set aside sacred thinking time to remind yourself about what’s most important for you to lead your organization well. Make absolutely, positively certain that taking action in the areas you need to focus on are a priority. Much of the other stuff can be placed at the bottom of the list or delegated. The rest you must say “no” to.

Determine what to say “no” to. Make and keep a list of things you have pending. This might sound elementary, but I’ve noticed many leaders don’t have a way to stay awake and aware of what they need to get done. Use whatever system you have at your disposal and log in everything that you’ve been asked to do (or think you need to do) — short term and long term. Check your list regularly against your organizational mission, your values, the urgency of the request, and whether there might be a delegation/learning opportunity for someone on your team to be responsible for some of the items. After that, I’m pretty sure you’ll regularly find some things you just don’t need to do.

Develop a strategy for communicating your “no.” You will get push-back when you’ve decided to say “no” to something. There will always be people who think their urgent item requires your attention. How will you tell your manager, your peer, accounting or human resources? Find a respectful and logical way to let them know how you made the decision to forgo the task in favor of doing other things that are essential. Listen respectfully to their objections (P.S. Do not say “I don’t have time” — it’s a cop-out. Be honest with them about your priorities).

Continually reassess your “no’s.” Have a regular meeting with yourself. Lock it in on your calendar, and if it requires getting away where you can’t be found for an hour or more to think, you’ll notice that the world won’t fall apart without you. There will always be new things to reassess. Regular thinking time is a requirement to be deliberate in working through your list to get to the “no’s.”

Bottom line: Saying “no” is an option you need to exercise regularly in order to focus on what’s most important. The feeling of freedom you get from it can be powerful.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 10 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages large-scale corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.