The Power of No


The servant-leader is the one who gets the not-so-enviable job of saying no.  Not enviable… though there are those who will believe differently.” Cat Chapin-Bishop

Cat Chapin-Bishop wrote a very good piece on the power of leadership, and the importance of holding the boundary of “no.” I encourage you to read it.

The two most challenging things I’ve had to learn in 20 years of practicing leadership and teaching is learning to let people go and knowing when to say no.

But first, I had to say a very strong yes to the work that was presenting itself to me. It was only through those early yeses that I developed my ability to say no.

No comes more easily to me now, although there are still cases where it feels more difficult: cases where people are in real need. What I’ve come to notice about those cases is that my “no” comes from my own lack of capacity to help, and that is important to recognize. We all have our skills, talents, training, and abilities. We also all have certain amounts of energy and time. Your need may be quite real and your project quite worthy, but sometimes I still have to say “no.” You may feel hurt or angry, but sometimes I still have to say “no.”

That is part of my job. To do anything else would be to disrespect myself or you. There are times when saying yes is to not honor that a cell can only do its best work within the boundary of the cell wall. If a cell breaches it’s walls, it is trying to do the work of a different cell, and it ends up unable to do any work at all. The whole body suffers.

We are all cells. We have something we center around. We have boundaries. And we can work together – it is vitally important that we do so. Sometimes this activity of community requires a strong “Yes! I will help you build this fabulous thing using the particulars I have to offer!” and other times this activity of community requires a strong “No! I cannot help you. That is too far outside my boundary of interest, energy, skill, training, or time.”

“Yes” and “no” are not reflections on worthiness.

What they are – or ought to be – are statements of what is currently possible.


We can practice saying both yes and no, and notice how it feels, and more importantly, notice what it reflects.

We can also practice receiving both yes and no, and noticing the same.

Neither yes or no are the beginning or ending of a world, rather, they show us the path to actual possibility. Giving or receiving yes or no is simply giving or receiving more information. Sometimes we may want or need more clarity and information to understand what the path looks like now.

And sometimes we are gifted with the opportunity of a strong boundary that allows us to say, “OK. What next?”

Saying no can be as liberating to the soul as saying yes.

Both yes and no can help tell us who we are and where we need to go.




I leave you with this gorgeous meditation in Cree and English from Métis singer/poet Moe Clark who reminds us that “No is curiosity’s refusal to be complacent.”

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