The Power of “No”: How Great Leaders Embrace Their Inner Toddler

“You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.”Nassim Taleb

Anyone who’s raised or been around young children is all too familiar with the word “no.” 

“Noes” begin when toddlers take agency over their lives and make choices based on their preferences. “No, I don’t want to go to bed. No, I don’t want to pick up my toys. No, I don’t want peas with dinner. No, I don’t want to wear any clothing today!” Sound familiar?

Reflecting on my own personal experience, the endless and relentless flow of “noes” can be supremely frustrating for parents and other adults!

But if you’re willing to be curious and stick with me, there’s a high-stakes lesson here for leaders:

What our toddlers seem to understand is that every time they say “no” to one thing, they are able to say “yes” to something else they deem more valuable.

As adults and as leaders, we often lose sight of this profoundly powerful concept! 

What our toddlers seem to understand is that every time they say “no” to one thing, they are able to say “yes” to something else they deem more valuable.

We say “yes” to please others. We say “yes” because we want to be well-liked. We say “yes” to keep up with competitors or out of fear that if we don’t, we could miss out on a big opportunity. In other words, we say “yes” more than we say “no” and routinely occupy ourselves (and our teams) with less valuable pursuits.

Although many of these choices might seem reasonable at the moment, all they really do is move you away from other, more valuable options—including your goals and aspirations!

Here’s the hard truth: There are both apparent and hidden costs associated with every “yes” choice you make. You invest in those choices financially, physically, emotionally, or with the most valuable commodity of all: Time.

Where are you saying “yes” when you should be saying “no?” And even more critically, do your “noes” really mean “no?”

Here are four areas where high performing leaders embrace their inner toddler:

Growing People

Let’s open with a classic dilemma for leaders and managers: Should I fix a problem myself, or teach someone else to do it?

If you aspire to grow and scale, it’s imperative to elevate yourself above the day-to-day to a more strategic level. To get there, you and all of the leaders in your organization must actively build capability among the next level of leadership (or future leaders). Intellectually, this makes sense, yet when a real-world problem arises and alarm bells are ringing, your natural instinct is to fix things yourself.

In that moment, you’ll likely reason it will be more efficient or effective (or both) to do it yourself. You’ll also probably make a mental note that you really ought to show others how to handle issues like this when you have more time. And there’s the rub: You never make the time.

By saying “yes” to solving the problem, you’re actually saying “no” to scaling your business and helping your employees grow.

I get it—the math often makes these types of decisions daunting. It’s much easier to spend 15 minutes taking care of something than it is to find an hour to properly teach someone. But in six months, when you’re frustrated that your next-level leadership can’t do anything by themselves, you’ll regret it. It’s not that they’re incompetent—it’s that you said “no” repeatedly to investing the time it takes to scale your business properly and sustainably. 

By saying “yes” to solving the problem, you’re actually saying “no” to scaling your business and helping your employees grow.

Key Takeaway for Leaders: Say “no” to doing things yourself so you can say “yes” to growing your people and creating a more scalable organization. Ensure your extended leadership team does the same.

Business Strategy

Your Strategy captures HOW you intend to attain the WHAT, defined by your goals. As such, strategy directly informs choices and actions that need to occur—and in some cases not occur—to achieve your aspirations.

The data is pretty clear that a narrow business strategy is far more effective than a broad one. For example, trying to be many things to many people is not nearly as effective as trying to be one thing to a lot of people or a robust package of things to a small group of people.

But as you taste success and as your business grows, it becomes tempting to chase “shiny objects.”

When you say “yes” to the distraction, you say “no” to your strategy.

These projects or opportunities aren’t consistent with your strategy, but you rationalize your way into them. You think “we could make a lot of money doing this,” or “this isn’t that far off from what we said we wanted to do,” or my favorite, “it won’t take much time or effort.”

When you say “yes” to the distraction, you say “no” to your strategy.

Leaders with shiny object syndrome completely demoralize their hard-working teams. I’ve been in rooms with CEOs who have directed employees to chase distractions, and you can see the light drain from their team’s eyes when they say something like “it’ll barely take any time and the potential upside is massive!”

To the contrary, as a leader, you should be the one constantly aligning everyone to your vision. You should be the one saying “no” to keep everyone else on track.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to distractions and shiny objects so you can say “yes” to your business strategy.

Company Culture

Company culture is defined through core values—or “cultural commitments,” as one of my clients calls them. Although your cultural commitments are specific behaviors you’ve agreed to say “yes” to, I frequently see leaders underinvesting in building their culture while simultaneously tolerating non-compliant behaviors.

As with shiny object syndrome, leaders often rationalize non-compliant cultural commitment behaviors by pointing out unrelated virtues possessed by the violators. Here’s what that sounds like: “Yes, I know that Bobby in sales is a bully and a jerk, but he’s the highest-performing salesperson we have.” This mode of rationalization places all of the focus on the cost of potentially firing Bobby, with zero weight on the ongoing damage he’s inflicting on the rest of your team which, in these cases, is typically horrible. 

These behavioral concessions are a slippery slope. By allowing non-compliant behavior to occur, even if you never utter a spoken word, you say “yes” to that behavior and “no” to your cultural commitments in full view of every employee! 

By extension, you’re effectively saying “no” to building the right culture, “no” to attracting and retaining the right people, and “no” to feeling good about the type of business you’re building.

By allowing non-compliant behavior to occur, even if you never utter a spoken word, you say “yes” to that behavior and “no” to your cultural commitments in full view of every employee.

You might not realize this at the time, but by not correcting off-culture behaviors—or occasionally showing an employee the exit—you forfeit all of those things.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to culturally non-compliant behaviors so you can say “yes” to building the organization you really want to run.


You’ve heard the old saying a million times: “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Yet this is one of the primary reasons I see businesses struggling to grow.

You and each leader on your team should have a very short list of one, two, or three priorities at any moment in time. This list denotes the guidelines for what you should say “yes” to and how you should allocate your resources. Anything outside of your priorities should be an automatic “no” unless the priorities are on track and on time.

At the leadership level, saying “yes” to non-priorities slows everything down.

Not only should you say “no” to new things that come up for yourself, but you should also not tolerate your people focusing their time and attention on non-priorities. Unclear priorities weaken the company’s execution and demoralize staff, as everyone is working hard but meaningful progress seems elusive.

At the leadership level, saying “yes” to non-priorities slows everything down. You wonder why you’re not growing the way you should be, or why things aren’t getting easier. It’s all because you’re saying “yes” to the things you should be saying “no” to.

Key Takeaway For Leaders: Say “no” to non-priorities and distractions so you can say “yes” to the most important things that will advance your firm.


“What you don’t do determines what you can do.” — Tim Ferriss

Leadership can feel like being on a medieval torture rack—you’re constantly being stretched in a thousand directions by the pull of others. Without a clear understanding of your “yeses” and your “noes,” you’ll be ripped apart. 

In other words, if you don’t choose the “yeses” and “noes” for yourself, others will “choose” them for you:

  • The middle manager on your team single-handedly solving problems as the rest of their staff stagnate in their roles.
  • The Inc. Magazine writer’s shiny new idea cannibalizes traction from your business strategy.
  • The toxic, high performer stays employed and erodes your culture.
  • Personal agendas arising from unclear priorities erode execution, slow results, and exhaust your hard-working staff.

Channel your inner toddler

Get clear on your “yeses:” Your commitment to growing people, your business strategy, your cultural commitments, and your priorities.

Then, stay true to them no matter what. Your “yeses” must mean “yes,” and your “noes” must mean “no,” in both words and deeds.

Channel your inner toddler, stay true to the highest value prizes in your sights, and don’t let anyone divert you from remaining relentlessly focused on the things that are the most important to your success.


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Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

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The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.

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Class Date: May 31, 2023. Learn more and register!


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