• Chris Smith

Default to 'No'?

One skill that can slip through the cracks in leadership development is the ability to pivot between perspectives. While would be leaders seem to avidly pursue the skill of more subtly correcting people or more delicately bringing people over to her or his perspective, the same would be’s tend rather to avoid been seen as having changed their mind or acquiesced to some other position.


I imagine a metaphor of leaders being required to watch multiple television programs (or would they be streamed now?)… and being able to engage in a way that represents understanding of various, simultaneous plots. If that seems hard, well… it should be. Leadership is an opportunity that should be reserved for those who are ready, willing, and able to put people first. Leaders are entrusted with the care of people, and for the provision of experiences that should be better than those available from manager and boss-types. Healthy leadership is a critical ingredient in building teams.

Patrick Lencioni refers to leadership as a balance between smart and healthy behaviors. The smart behaviors include the strategy, finance, human resources, and planning skills. These represent the blocking and tackling of conventional business management. These are permission to play. The healthy behaviors are those that contribute to the experience that people have as they associate with the execution of the smart behaviors. Healthy behaviors answer the question of how people are impacted and made to feel by the provision of products and services that we provide during the execution of business. It is incumbent upon each leader to determine the moderation of behaviors between what is done and how it is done. The challenge isn’t necessarily understanding that there are two sets of behaviors. The savvy exists rather in the intentionality and discipline to deploy them, in appropriate measure.

Smart and healthy behaviors are born of different perspectives. While at first it might appear that perspectives could be unlimited, I see two basic sets.

  • An operational perspective is focused towards advancing or producing results. This is the work. Its detail is provided in the job description. Often the name of the position is the shortest possible summary of that work. An operational perspective is advanced by smart skills and behaviors. And critically, this area often represents the vast majority of what we conventionally measure to assess job effectiveness.

  • An aspirational perspective is focused more precisely on the provision of the people experience. This includes both the experience of internal (employees, colleagues, partners, etc.) and external (customers, clients, suppliers, governors, etc.) stakeholders. An aspirational perspective is most consistently well advanced through the application of healthy behaviors.

It is important to recognize that the leader is not exempt from the right to a remarkable experience. Being healthy includes taking steps to ensure that the leader considers her or himself in the consumption of what makes an experience healthy. It is fundamental for the leader to be having a satisfactory experience and be in a positive state of mind, so that she or he can effectively and sustainably influence healthy conditions for other stakeholders.

Consider the common airline message - “In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks above your seat will deploy, please place the mask first and then assist your child or other passengers.

Healthy leadership has another advantage - it offers direction for leaders, even when it may appear that there isn’t any. One sign of a leader who is yet to fully embrace healthy behaviors is the compulsion to default to “NO”. This is sadly all too common. A perceived noble prioritization of the business too often subjugates the plight of its people. It is a sort of sacrifice that people are asked to make in support of the business - this type of sacrifice sits atop a slippery slope of building patterns and even norms of that organization’s culture.

This is not a single-serving issue. Leaders who struggle with health are the same leaders who worry that where one individual request is granted, others will follow. Often these leaders are the frustrating sort of managers who default to “NO” because they lack the savvy to navigate the adjudication of needs across a team of individuals. Nothing screams abdication of leadership responsibility like the words “…if I give this to you, I’ll have to give it to everyone else too.”

Here are four ways to help leaders avoid the default to “NO”:

  • Have a point of view. When you become a leader, when you take responsibility for new people, or just when you haven’t done so in a little while, share your leadership point of view with your people. Enter into a collaborative bargain with those people where you work together to understand the type of experience people should expect to have… and then try to stay on type. When you deviate, own it.

  • Be intentional. Let your actions prove to people that they are the priority. Make the effort to see the world through the eyes of others. Avoid decisions made only with the business in mind, and the implied assumption that people will have to accommodate the business.

  • Measure. It doesn’t take data analytics to determine when a default to “NO” is creeping into your management style. See if you can keep track. Just being more aware of it will protect you from it, and it will create a strong example from those who want to grow up to be leaders like you.

  • Embrace the individuals on your team. When you make broad decisions about what will be allow for nobody or everybody, you only help yourself. Work with people. Be authentic in your willingness to support the individual needs of the members of your team, and be honest in situations where those needs might be unique and different from the other members of your team. Apply yourself to figure out what really matters and when. And when people inevitably disagree, lead.


The truth is… healthy leadership is its own mitigation of the risk of defaulting to “NO.” It is also often a pretty good way of both helping your people to understand your “NO” when it does happen, and even being able to anticipate it. When this norm characterizes your team’s culture, you’re probably well on your way to solid organizational health.



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