Finding Strategic Focus by Saying No — Without Being a Naysayer

Posted by
February 23, 2021

Topic: Strategic Influence

Written by Karin Blair


The Board’s enthusiasm was high. Sally had painted a compelling picture of the envisioned patient impact of this new opportunity — an initiative that might improve quality of life on the cancer journey. 

But somebody had to say “no.” And it was looking more and more like that was going to be me. 

I didn’t want to be a “naysayer.” My internal thoughts spun with fears of being labeled as someone who

  • Lacks belief or vision in what is possible
  • Always sees the “why not” instead of the “why”
  • Avoids risks — to the point of believing “it can’t be done”
  • Exudes cynicism and pessimism

Ugh. These aren’t exactly attributes of a transformational or strategic leader. Sounds a lot more like the types of people who resist change and preserve the status quo. The Naysayers. The risk of that label was enough to make me want to keep quiet. 

Trust me, it’s a lot more fun to be the cheerleader and advocate for the next “shiny object.” Just like it’s more fun to be the cool parent who says yes than the one who sets boundaries and limits. Saying no isn’t fun, but it is often strategically necessary. 

I knew I wouldn’t be leading strategically if I kept quiet. 

A strategic focus is critical for maximum impact. As strategic leaders, we must say NO to compelling opportunities so that we can say “hell yes” to others. And this opportunity, exciting though it was, didn’t align with the Board’s strategic priorities.

So, how do we find and maintain strategic focus by saying NO without being perceived as a naysayer? 


Raise Your Awareness

Know Your Tendency 

Frequency matters. In the face of change and new possibilities, do you jump to NO? Or conversely, do you always say YES? When we lean heavily to one side or the other, we are destined for the labels of “Naysayer” or “Yes‑(wo)men.”   

Neither stance serves us or the organization well. When our position on any issue is predictable, we undermine our leadership credibility. It becomes difficult to trust in our judgment and discernment. Saying YES to everything means we lack strategic focus, just as saying NO to everything suggests we lack creativity and a willingness to take a risk.  

Strategic Focus Exercise

Take a moment to consider: 

    • On a scale of one to five (high), where would you calibrate your risk tolerance?  
    • And does that tendency correlate with your tendency to say YES or NO? 

Risk aversion can prevent us from taking a controversial or divergent stance. And YES can be as risk‑averse as NO — fearful of missing out on any opportunity. 

To lead strategically, we must have the courage of our convictions — sometimes to say YES and sometimes to say NO. Even if ours is the only voice speaking up. 

When you know your tendency, you can intentionally flex it to the needs of the moment.  

Ground Your NO in Your Implicit YES

If you tend to focus on constraint versus possibility, get clear on the essence of your NO. 

Are you saying we CAN’T or we SHOULDN’T? Is your NO rooted in fear, pragmatism, or your beliefs about where the organization should and shouldn’t focus to position for long‑term sustainability?

Strategic Focus Exercise

Next time you want to turn away from an opportunity, dig a little deeper to get clear on what you are saying NO to exactly. For example:

    • Not now (timing) 

    • Not this way (approach)

    • Not this opportunity for us (strategic fit) 

    • Not this overarching objective (strategic direction)

Now, with this clarity of position, get curious about your implicit YES.

When I was saying NO at that Board meeting, I was saying YES to disciplined strategic focus. This opportunity would take us in an expanded direction and shift the relative priority of our imperatives. By having the courage to be the lone voice that said NO to a compelling opportunity and YES to our current strategic focus, I created an opportunity to realign the entire team to our relative priorities.

It is often easier to say what we don’t want than what we do. Behind every NO is an implicit YES. Shift your perspective to emphasize what you do want. And lead and influence from here. 

Build Credibility and Momentum

There are three steps to this.

1. Flex Your Style

If you consistently lean on either YES or NO, your credibility as a strategic leader is at risk. Whenever we are creating futures that don’t yet exist, we must lead from both belief AND credibility.  

A colleague uses the slinky dog as a metaphor. Remember that toy? You must stretch the slinky dog to move forward. But if you stretch his body too far out, it will sling back. You have to stretch into the unknowable future AND you have to keep from pushing too far and snapping backward for lack of credibility. 

My client Adrian is developing his ability to challenge recommendations without being seen as a Naysayer. He has been experimenting with the implicit YES behind his NO. When he said NO to a particular M&A deal, he said YES to the overarching strategic objective. His message wasn’t a Naysayer NO, but rather, “Let’s find a different way.” And some colleagues thanked him for “being the voice of reason.” In that instance, Adrian was the needed voice of credibility. Next time, as he flexes his style, he may need to be the voice of belief and possibility.  

Our ability to influence and lead through the YES or the NO will increase when we flex our natural style to unlock the power of AND:

  • Expand AND Constrain
  • Possibility AND Focus
  • Optimism AND Pragmatism

The power of AND is not to be confused with the middle ground. Unlocking the power of AND propels us toward the desired future. Discover what is needed most from your leadership in this situation and then flex your style to the moment to amplify your strategic impact.    

2. Find a Way

If you don’t want to be seen as a Naysayer — “find a way.

A Naysayer’s NO is typically centered on “Can we?” This is a perspective often rooted in what we know. Yet strategic opportunities emerge at the intersection of what we know and what we believe.  

A leap of faith into the unknown is required. Into the “gap of emergence” that bridges the possibility of tomorrow with the reality of today. The gap — and the bridge — often won’t emerge until you believe.

If you often see reasons why something won’t work, suspend your disbelief for a moment. Shift your perspective from what doesn’t work and consider: what would need to be true to make that future a reality? Get curious and creative. New realities emerge from challenging the status quo and closely held beliefs.  

My son says he wants to go to Harvard. Based on what I know about his study habits, his level of effort, and the courses he is taking, I am skeptical. If I say NO, it’s because my focus is on all the reasons why he can’t instead of exploring how he could (I know, parent of the year, but we have all been there, right?).  

But when I pivot my attention to what would have to be true for me to believe in the possibility, I shift into a more creative energy. I shift from blocking to enabling — all while still grounding his optimism with my pragmatism.

Strategic Focus Exercise

The next time you don’t agree with a recommendation, experiment with creating alternative options that feel more likely to achieve the same objectives. Make a list. 

The result — calculated risks that move the organization forward AND increase the likelihood of success. Belief AND Credibility. 

3. Be an Advocate for the Future

Naysayers are not just people who frequently say NO. They are often preservers of the status quo.  

Strategic leaders use NO to create the business of the future. While there are many ways to do that, strategy narrows the options to a distinct and integrated set of choices that define where you will play and how you will win — with a critical combination of context and capabilities. That clarity of strategic direction provides clarity of focus.  

Strategic leaders can confidently lead and influence from the “hell yes” of that focus and equally dare to say NO to compelling opportunities. When we influence and inspire toward (instead of against) something, we create a movement to join. There is a sense of momentum and creation. 

So what future are you willing to stand for?  

Can We, Should We, MUST We?

  • A Naysayer’s NO is typically centered on, “Can we?” 
  • A strategic NO is concerned with, “Should we?” 

And the answer lies somewhere between can and should — because a strategy that can’t deliver the envisioned impact is useless, AND risk‑taking is unavoidable for game‑changers.  

A CEO once asked me, “Karin, when you walk around in the future, what do you know to be true?” His simple question connected me to the future — a future we needed to evolve the organization toward. The debate of “could we or should we?” came to a grinding halt. With that simple question, I knew we MUST “find a way.” This wasn’t just a possibility to move toward. It was a necessity. Adapt or die.  

Necessity is the mother of invention. When we must, we will. Through the seemingly limitless potential of human ingenuity, we continue to make “the impossible, possible.” From a man on the moon to the unprecedented speed of discovery and development of a vaccine in response to a worldwide pandemic.  

Naysayers block. 

Strategic leaders createand find a way.


Download Game-Changers' Guide to Strategic Leadership




Everything you need to start creating your pillar page flows today.