Leaders Know When to Say “NO”!

I have come to appreciate the notion for leaders to seek innovation and stimulate risk-taking and curiosity by saying “Yes” first before finding ways to make it happen with the reality of time, money, and obstacles.  Saying “yes” first is empowering to others and invokes a sense of curiosity, affirmation, and boldness among the team. But, I was reminded the power of saying “No” recently that can make a leader even more effective at times through a story shared from a leader.

During a Building Leadership Team meeting, the leader facilitated a dialogue to brainstorm possible strategies for a problem at their school.  The brainstorming process is a critical step in a design cycle that can invoke creativity, exploration, energy, and increased collaboration (along with future buy-in).

As with any opportunity to blast ideas without recourse or judgement, the room slowly got louder during this “ideation” phase.  As team members shouted out ideas, the scribe frantically recorded the information on poster paper.

The conversation began to shift from a barrage of ideas coming at all angles to the support from members to an idea that was suggested.

“I love that idea!”

“That seems easy!”

“Let’s try that one!”

Through the protocol established before the brainstorming process, the leader had explained they would brainstorm for 10 minutes and then work through a process to narrow them down afterwards.  But, they were only 4 minutes into the process!

Not following the process wasn’t an issue for her; she understood that leaders need to have strong implementation of protocols and facilitation as a leader in the midst of any type of collaborative work.  But, she did have a problem with the strategy they were beginning to center on.

It wasn’t a research-based best practice!  In fact, research was conducted regarding that strategy and had shown no statistical significance of improvement.

Although she understood the importance of team development and the brainstorming process, her understanding of the research was even greater – she quickly halted the conversation with one single, confident word – “NO”!

It was as if a sharp knife had sliced right through the conversation.  All conversation stopped and eyes turned on her.  She quickly apologized for speaking out of order but explained that the research did not support that strategy and didn’t meet the shared guidelines of implementing research-based best practices established in how they work as a team.

While she shared this story with me as a way to confess for her emotional outburst that trumped the process, I congratulated her!

I appreciated that she knew the research!  As leaders, it is imperative to stay current with research on best practices.  While reading blogs is a great way to get some information and cause us to think different, leaders also need to be entrenched in the research from researchers such as Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Carol Ann Tomlinson.  Regardless of the degree, background, or outlook as a reader, leaders need to be researchers.  While the books or articles may not be as appealing as some leadership books, being grounded in factual information as a leader provides a focus for improvement that can’t be matched.

I appreciated that she spoke up!  While she didn’t follow the protocol established, her passion and the way the conversation changed prompted her to speak up.  Although emotions were running high for the members to almost center on a strategy that was unknowingly not supported by research, she knew that it would have wasted time, energy and money, and still not even produce the intended results.  Too often, teams create action plans that sidetrack the work away, not towards the goal.  And, instead of stopping to reflect and possibly modify the plan, additional time and effort is spent in the direction opposite the destination.  Leaders have to know when it is time to speak up when necessary.

All of this could have been avoided if the leader knew when to say “No”!

As a leader, do you stay current with research?  Do you speak up at the beginning to avoid wasted time and energy in things that do not show positive impact?


  1. Neil,

    Thanks for sharing. I admire the courage that was shown in saying No when the initiative was not back by research. Leaders also need to learn to say no to things when we are overcommitted (something I struggle with). Great post!


  2. That reminds me of a portion from this video in which David Kelly states “It’s time for the adults to take over” https://vimeo.com/76462483 (I know it’s dated but pertinent).
    Having a clearly defined Decision Matrix helps to narrow those concepts into something workable after the idea generation phase. Perhaps a column labeled “Is it supported by research” would be one constraint.

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