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Why Great Leaders Say No

August 8, 2019

We seem to be living through a time when elected leaders at least, have succeeded by telling people what they want to hear.

Is this really leadership? We’d say it’s not. True leadership requires the courage and wisdom to say out loud, the truths that people don’t want to hear. It’s not fun, it upsets people and makes the leader unpopular. In the short term for sure and often, for much longer.


Leadership is tough, lonely and thankless. Sometimes it’s well paid but the cost can be considerable. If you are reading this as a rising leader, don’t be discouraged, do seek out those that have led, successfully or otherwise and hear their counsel. Then decide if leadership is really for you.

If you are reading this as an established leader, encountering feelings of loneliness, vulnerability and doubt, then find yourself a wise, impartial confidant and book regular time to reflect on your decisions, behaviours and plans.

Management schools, numerous books and very likely your organisation will tell you that leadership is a goal you should be aiming for. It can provide a platform to make a tremendous difference or it can be a trap that turns good men and women into liars and cheats. To finish the leadership journey well, takes the courage to stand by our convictions, especially when doing so may make us unpopular.

22 years ago, ten years before the iPhone launch. Steve Jobs was embarking on turning Apple from a failure into the world’s most successful company. He was asked why certain innovations had been pulled. He suggested that Apple had a culture of good engineers working for lousy managers, going off in 18 different directions, doing interesting things but undermining the business.

“Focusing is about saying no. And when you say no you piss off people.”
Steve Jobs 1997

As you plan the final quarter of the year, what will you be saying no to?

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