Do the Best Leadership Lessons Come from Yes or No?

by Alli Polin on August 13, 2013

The Best Leadership Lesson is to help others learn for themselves. Will you say yes or no?

I’ve caught myself saying “no” a lot recently and it’s usually followed by:

  • Don’t do that!
  • Are you crazy?
  • Watch out!
  • Stop it!

I haven’t been talking to my team, but usually to children.  Still, when we’re constantly telling others to stop what they’re doing, and we point out every single bad idea, they’ll  probably do it again… and never really grasp that the idea, indeed, is a bad one until a rock hits them on the head and knocks the lesson into them.

First No of the Day:

My son and his friends decided to throw rocks at the blacktop as hard as they could to have them break apart and make geodes.  One of his friends had the awesome idea that instead of just aiming for the ground, maybe it would be more spectacular to throw the rocks in a big arc through the air and see what happens.  Uh, no.

Second No of the Day:

A little boy I don’t know decided to crawl under a soccer net and try to drag someone else’s dog on a leash through the net.  Big time no!

Third No of the Day:

Some kids at school were crowding around a fire hydrant and putting in a great team effort to turn the knob and get some water to flow.  Bad idea! No!

I began to wonder, did I intervene and say “no” this often when I was a VP?  Do I tell my coaching and consulting clients “no” all day every day?  No.  Hummm. Why?

“No” may stop people, but just wait until you’re not around and guess what will happen?  ~ Alli Polin (Click to Tweet

Whether you’re a CEO or a stay-at-home Mom, you undoubtedly make a zillion decisions each day and “yes” and “no” are a part of your daily lexicon.  I’m not suggesting that you or I should become Jim Carrey in “Yes Man” but instead be aware of the balance between “yes” and “no” and tap into the power of “yes” a little more often.

We need to learn some lessons for ourselves.  (Click to Tweet)

Before Jumping to “No,” Ask Yourself:

  • Is anyone going to get physically harmed?
  • Is the lesson irreversible?
  • Is the lesson controllable?
  • Does it really matter?
  • Am I more attached to my way than our shared goal to get things done?
  • Could a “yes” lead to some interesting lessons learned that will deepen the learning and forward the action?

Remember, the goal isn’t to drop the “no” but to look for those times you can say “yes.” (Click to Tweet)

The Power of “YES”:

  • Yes tells people that they have your trust – you believe that they can do it!
  • When people come to you with an idea, express your confidence in their creativity with a “yes.”
  • Empowerment comes not only from letting people manage their own work but also saying “yes” to their leadership instead of asserting your own.
  • “Yes” brings with it possibility – especially when you play with “yes and” and build on ideas to create never before dreamed options.
  • Learning happens through following the “yes” down a path.  There may be challenges, successes, or plain old dead-ends but along the way they will absolutely learn.

Make the Leap:

  • Let go of the “No” and let your people LEARN, GROW and DISCOVER new possibilities and failures for themselves.
  • Let go of the need to protect your people and be a leader that empowers people to become the next generation of leaders.
  • Teach people to look to their inner-knower instead of looking to you as the ultimate decision maker.
  • If you say “yes,” mean it!  Let go and be a leader that’s focused on helping things go right instead of managing what could go wrong.

What has led to your biggest growth as a leader – a “yes” or a “no”?  Which do you find yourself saying more often?

Are you ready to make the leap?  For speaking, coaching or consulting, Let’s Connect!

(Photo credit)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Karin Hurt August 13, 2013 at 6:31 am

Ahh, we do operate on similar wavelengths 😉


Alli Polin August 13, 2013 at 6:59 am

I knew I liked you 😉 Seriously – when we say yes it truly does take us in new directions. A little more yes in our lives and a little less no could create big changes!


Cynthia Bazin August 13, 2013 at 8:49 am

What an interesting question Ali. Interestingly, I have been inspired by both those that have said “No” and “Yes”. I grew up in an environment where many of my family and friends always stayed in their ‘safety’ / comfort zone and never really took risk or changes to really go for it in life. Fortunately, I had a few really good mentors in my life that took me under their wing (early in life) and positively challenged me never to give in to what I really wanted in life. So when there have been people saying ‘no’ it can’t happen, I challenge that and say why not? And of course, people saying yes, is inspiration to be your best. Great post!


Alli Polin August 13, 2013 at 8:55 am

Thanks so much for your comment, Cynthia! Mentors and coaches make a huge difference especially when they believe in us even when we’re willing to give up. Absolutely love that NO doesn’t stop you at all but inspires you to work harder to make things that you really want happen! Personal leadership in action!


Terri Klass August 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

What a fantastic post, Alli on the ability to empower others through three simple letters-YES! I do believe we learn best by experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly as you have noticed with your son and his friends. I just think “yes” opens up new ways to explore and hopefully teach us different ways to approach life challenges. Kids can teach us so much about being fearless and adventurous. I love the way they aren’t afraid to step up and leap! Thanks!


Alli Polin August 13, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Terri – You embody what it means to be an empowering leader and to teach others to do the same! We don’t need permission for everything we choose to do but “yes” affirms the relationship too. Love how you put it” yes opens up new ways to explore.” The more we can equip others to navigate their own challenges, the more successful we are as leaders (and parents too!)

Thanks so much, Terri!


LaRae Quy August 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Love the question! I’ve written several articles on the way in which YES and NO changes the way we think about ourselves. I’m a big proponent of never allowing self-talk to start off with NO, I can’t do this. However, when it comes to an outside voice telling me either YES or NO, I truly value both. The word NO has caused me to re-evaluate the wisdom of the direction I was taking….obstacles and adversity are freighted with NO, and while I’ve rarely let an obstacle deter me from my course, it has encouraged me to change tactic, and sometimes set even higher goals for myself. I don’t think the word YES is always a good thing when it comes from others, because sometimes the appropriate word is NO.

What I love about YES is that it encourages and builds others up, so it depends entirely upon the context of the question. Great article, Alli. I’m sharing with others.


Alli Polin August 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm

LaRae – I that you really bring something special to the table…. you don’t react to NO, you re-evaluate and reflect. NO is just another obstacle and there is wisdom in other’s desire to help by their NO when it’s given for the right reasons (in service of your success and growth).

You’re absolutely right – there is a time for YES and a time for NO… context matters!!

Many thanks for your feedback and insights! Greatly appreciated, LaRae!


J. P. Lucas August 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Great post! I have never thought much about how powerful a simple yes or no response may be to others.

We definitely have a positive connotation with ‘Yes’ and a negative connotation with ‘No.’ In fact, we often teach to “Never take ‘no’ as an answer.” No wonder we have such a hard time listening and learning from ‘no’….

I will be looking for more opportunities to turn around the ‘yes’ response moving forward!

Thanks Alli!

J. P.


Alli Polin August 13, 2013 at 9:54 pm

They both teach us something if we’re open to it but with NO, somehow the lesson is harder to find. I hear from lots of people that every no they get gives them more drive to turn it into a YES! or prove to others why they get to decide for themselves. Any way you look at it, yes tells people “I trust you and believe in you.” Powerful stuff!

Sincerely appreciate your comment and feedback, J.P.!


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