“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” ~Tony Blair

There is a great book called “Getting to Yes.” It is about negotiating agreement and makes a lot of sense. It is definitely a worthwhile read. But there is also a need for “Getting to No.” It is nice to think that we can come to agreement, but that is not always the case. So, why is it difficult to articulate this? I believe getting to no is a big part of leadership and an important part of CARE. It’s just natural that Clarity is transparent and honest. No, said in the right way, is honest.

One place that this clarity and honesty can be tough is in the recruiting/hiring process. I’ve watched this from both sides and understand why things are the way they are. Nobody wants a lawsuit, but does it have to be this way? Why can’t we just speak the truth? Let people know when they didn’t make the cut. Maybe it’s my age and the fact that I have a job/career I like, but, it seems wrong to me to hold out false hope.

When I lead a search I insist on being as honest as possible with the candidates. This can scare some, but I try to treat people as I would like to be treated. If a candidate makes the phone interview stage, but doesn’t make it to the campus visit, is it right to string them along? They are good people, deserving of respect. Searches are tough and organizations are looking for people that meet the needs of the organization. That’s tough with just a resume and a phone conversation, but choices are made with the limited information that is available.

I had a great experience with this recently. One person, after receiving an email from me stating that others would be brought to campus, emailed back and said, “I am serious about this career path and would like some feedback.” Naturally, this can be dangerous. But I know that I would really value some feedback in this situation and probably would not get any. So I agreed to talk and share my own opinions. We didn’t talk about the job, we talked about our opinions of what each could do better. I came away with areas to improve and so did the other person. We also identified someone else who could assist with additional development. So in the end, my hope is this new connection ends up much better prepared for the next opportunity.

Another place is resource allocation. This is a huge issue in higher education. The budgets are not getting better, but yet “leaders” are avoiding the tough decisions. They don’t want to say “No.” It seems simpler to spread the pain and say a weak yes to everything. Again, this is tough if you are the one hearing the “No,” but when we say no to one commitment it enables us to say a stronger yes to others. That’s true for individuals and it is true for organizations. In organizations there needs to be some planning when resource allocations change. Clearly articulating an answer is best for all involved.

While these two examples are pretty extreme, this applies to other areas as well. For instance research projects, committee work, volunteer opportunities, the list goes on. It’s not just in the big areas that the clarity of no makes a difference. It can make a difference in all areas.

Now, I won’t pretend it is easy for me to say no. I am still working on it

What are your thoughts on the power and challenges of no?

All the best!

4/25 Postscript:
As I continued to think about this last night, it occurred to me that I saw an excellent example of this early in my academic career. When I was coming out of Auburn I made it to the campus interview stage at Wake Forest. It was a long day as I had picked up a cold and an ice storm was on the way. As we were heading out the dean told me exactly what would happen. There was still another candidate scheduled, then the committee would meet, and then he would make his decision. Then he told me he would call me either way and let me know the decision. Move forward a few weeks and it’s the day of the decision and my office phone rings. It’s the dean. Needless to say I did not get the position. They went with someone else. We had a short conversation and to this day I have held Wake Forest, and especially that dean, in high regard. My hope is that I learned something from his good example and it causes me to do even the little things better.


Share This