The Power of No

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Tony Blair once said, “The art of leadership is not saying yes; it is saying no.”[1] And yet, if you are anything like me, you find it hard to say no on occasion. As long as everything seems important and urgent, “no” remains a distant dream. Leaders, ministry is important, but your health and emotional well-being remains a foundational element to the success of your mentoring program. Your health and the health of your organization depend upon your ability to say no. Here are some concepts to keep in mind as you lead in the “Power of No.”

First, realize that every time a leader says yes to someone, he/she also says no to someone else. Notice that it is someone and not something to whom we respond. Leaders may think of tasks and projects, but all of these details have a someone behind them. This person may be you – your own sense of urgency, importance and self-worth. This person may be someone else – someone with an urgent need. It could be your staff or your board. No matter who brings the need, when a leader says yes to that person, he/she says no to someone else. If a match coordinator says yes to a mentor who is unprepared, the coordinator consequently says no to the matched child who ends up with an ill-prepared person for a mentor. If a mentor director says yes to a fundraiser, she consequently says no to other relationships during the time needed to set the fundraiser into motion. It is often healthier for a leader to say no outright than to say no consequently.  Leaders must say no to some things in order to say yes to the important things.

Secondly, one of the most important gifts we can give to employees, mentors, and mentees is “no.” Don’t misunderstand me here. We want programs that risk and develop cultures of innovation with freedom to fail and to grow. But, inherent to these programs, is the need for definite guidelines and the occasional no. Parents who never say no to their kids do more harm to them than good. Leaders may risk the same if they never say no. A key factor in tenacity and growth is the ability to receive a “no” and to grow in the context of that guideline. Youth who do not see adults modeling this in their own lives are certain to struggle in adulthood. Breakthroughs in mentoring occur as mentors travel life with mentees during the dark days of “no” and denial. Discipline is the fruit of a healthy root of yes and no —opportunity and denial — encouragement and discouragement.

Finally, the way a leader determines his/her yes and no is through a clear understanding of purpose and character. If an athlete wants to achieve success in college, she must say no to certain behaviors and yes to those behaviors which lead to athleticism. If a young person wants to become a professor, he must say yes to studies and no to certain other hobbies. If you want to lead with integrity, you must choose your yes and no carefully. The principle remains the same. We become the total sum of our choices – both our choices to say yes and our choices to say no.

Blessings to you as you walk in the “Power of No.”

–Ken Merrifield


[1] As quoted by Lance Witt, Replenish, p. 131, Baker Books, 2011.

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