Toothpaste, Leadership, and the Art of No

Kathryn Scanland Leadership

The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.  ~Tony Blair
One of my personal pet peeves is the time it takes to stand in the toothpaste aisle and simply stare at the shelves until I finally find the specific brand and option that I want to buy.  Now I understand why it takes so long.  In an article I just discovered from February 2011, I learned that 352 distinct types or sizes of toothpaste were sold at retail, down from 412 in March 2008!  I’m also grateful to read that Procter & Gamble has significantly reduced the number of oral-care products because they’ve come to realize that fewer is actually better!
We’ve become a society of options—options for everything—health care products, TV channels to watch, satellite radio stations to listen to, music to download, etc., etc.  The name of one of the most successful companies to not only survive the recession but actually thrive right through it says it all— Amazon!
As individuals we’ve come to expect an abundance of options and organizations are no different.  There’s an “opportunity” or “need” around every corner.
In the not so distant past, it could have been argued that one of the requirements of leadership was to know what to say “Yes” to.  But when abundance [think toothpaste] far outweighs scarcity, the table has turned.  Now it’s critical that leaders develop the art of saying “No.”
Gary Burnison writes in The 12 Absolutes of Leadership that “strategy requires tough decisions: what the organization will and will not do in order to preserve its brand, honor its history, and realize a future that is of its own making.”  In a recent article on Forbes online, Steve Denning writes “Leadership is all about focusing energy on achieving an important goal.  In achieving focus, leadership is implicitly saying ‘no’ to all the other less-important things that might be attempted at this time.  In a sense, ‘saying no’ to trivia and distractions is the essence of leadership.”
So how do we do it?  How do we actually practice the Art of No?  Dana Theus provides three great suggestions.
 If you don’t say “No,” you won’t leave room for the “Yes’s” that matter.If you run around saying “Yes” to things you mean “No” to, or worse, pepper people with “maybes” (which tends to lead to paralysis after a bit), then your “Yes’s” come to mean very little.

“No’s” help you manage energy.

It’s all about focus. No organization or person has the energy, time or resources for everything that has to get done. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to maintain focus and you must always be looking for ways to get rid of things that detract from it.

Artful “No’s” help employees become better stewards of the goals and build a more focused culture.

If you just say “No” and walk away, you’re leaving all that unsaid baggage dumped in their lap. Don’t do that. Take the time to explain your decision and empower them to say “No” earlier on the next time.

To quote the legendary war on drugs commercial of the 1980’s: Leaders need to “Just say no”!
Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

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