The Positivity of Saying “No”Larenda Mielke | Vice President of Higher Education, Kaufman Hall
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” ~Warren Buffet
I was new at SMU. It was a time of change. Decisions had been made, slowly, to sell an under-used satellite campus. But an ancillary summer youth camp, which had been a summer hallmark long before I had arrived as a campus leader, had operated at that satellite campus each summer. The camp served a great number of K-12 students under the auspices of SMU, and many parents depended on it for quality education of their children during the summer. By all external appearances, the camp was a huge success.
With the sale of the satellite campus, we had to make a decision about the next summer. Internally, we knew that the income from the summer youth camp program barely covered its hard costs, and did not contribute at all to the salaries of the full-time staff or any overhead. However, the camp was well-respected in Dallas and the surrounding area, and very successful in increasing SMU’s visibility. What were we to do if we were forced to rent space as an additional cost ongoing?
The director of the summer camp, who reported up to me and was part of my new team, had built the camp from a small program to one which served more than 3,000 students a year. After the sale of the satellite campus became certain, we discussed and researched options for renting or using the main campus—nothing looked financially or politically feasible.
I knew what I believed we should do, but I was new. It made much more sense politically for my summer team leader to come up with the answer herself. And she did. She was understandably proud of the program she had built into a great success, but together we said “no” to the summer youth program.
It must have been a very hard decision for her—much harder than it was hard for me to step back and allow her to come to the decision herself. But it was right. As of this writing, instead of the camp, three strategic partnerships for SMU with K-12 leadership and their top schools have begun to take the place of the summer youth program in our strategy and financial planning. SMU is even better represented to those pre-college students, closer in age to becoming college students, and the initiatives more strategically match the SMU culture.
We could have tried to limp along, barely making it with the summer youth camp, but it would have vacuumed much of that director’s attention, siphoned off profitability from other programs, and negated following up other new, related opportunities. Necessity once more birthed innovation.
This story illustrates what has been noted more than once by Warren Buffet and other successful leaders: A large part of leading successfully requires saying “no.” Specifically, as leaders in higher education, what great results come from saying “no”?
Set Priorities and Follow Them
First, saying “no” helps show that you will follow your own priorities, even when it’s very hard. Many opportunities are attractive, but not all should be followed. In this way, actually saying “no” shows that you have decided your strategy and will follow through with it even if your decision seems (on the surface) to be the opposite of what should be done.
Sometimes, it helps to have an excuse or justification for these tough decisions. For example, in our typical work milieu at SMU we use market research studies to help justify occasionally saying “no” to programs posited by our academic colleagues which had not been considered from a market-driven perspective.
As a leader, you show discipline by saying “no” to opportunities that others believe to be easy wins, but are not part of your strategy. It gives people the opportunity to respect your judgment. These difficult decisions show that you are looking out for the team members, too. Over time, you gain a reputation for making consistent decisions, and people trust you to do it.
Explain Your Actions
Third, explaining why you say “no” shows that you can be trusted to act in your team’s best interests, and in the interest of the university. I find that it’s too easy to forget that over-communicating justification is essential in most decision-making situations. Although reasons seem familiar to the leader, it may be less clear to others in the organization. Clarifying justifications both up and down the reporting structure is another discipline which leaders would do well to implement as they make decisions – to help others trust them.
Know that Your Decisions Reflect Your Leadership Mindset
Finally, a study at the University of Zurich provided people a choice between making a somewhat risky decision on their own or deferring it to a vote. Either their own winnings would be at risk… or everyone’s would. More people tended to refer the decision to a vote when others would be affected by the results. However, people who scored high on leadership tests were able to make the two types of decisions (for self or others) with almost equal confidence. These leaders had lower “leadership aversion.” In other words, in real life they were well-practiced in making decisions which affect others, and doing so with care and definitiveness. Practicing this kind of skill is a way for us as leaders to continually improve it.
In sum, saying “no” is an essential leadership skill which shows leaders’ ability to know and follow their priorities, be disciplined, help others understand the justification of their actions, and practice the most effective mindset. As leaders continue to practice and improve their confidence in saying “no,” more of the up-and-coming leaders we mentor will realize its positivity, and follow our example.
 Micah G. Edelson, Rafael Polania, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr, Todd A. Hare. Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions. Science, 2018; 361 (6401): eaat0036 DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0036
Author Perspective: Administrator