School leadership is intense work. There are so many people counting on you. Getting all of your work done and ensuring the children and families are thriving is an enormous ask. Yet you do it pretty well most of the time.

You hear people out. You support them. When they come to you with an idea, you are likely to consider them seriously. This is good leadership.

Sometimes, though, good leadership requires saying no. While I never seemed to have a problem with saying no, I’ve learned that it is a big challenge for some folks. After coaching many leaders through the process of setting a respectful boundary (and setting a few myself) I have a few thoughts for you.

Let Go of Your Stories

If saying no or setting boundaries with people is hard for you, this is likely linked to stories you are telling yourself. Most of these stories probably aren’t even true, but you’re allowing them to bind you. The stories you tell yourself are likely based in fear, and therefore an inadequate source of information for making a rational decision.

Examples of common stories:

  • “If I start saying ‘no’ people will hate me.”
  • “Sandy will be really mad if I don’t do this. She might even quit”
  • “Aiden’s parents will disenroll if I don’t pro-rate tuition for winter break.”
  • “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
  • “I’m too busy to care what anyone is doing.”
  • “Teachers won’t want to work at a school with a leader who says ‘no.’”

My responses to those stories:

  • They won’t hate you, they will respect and appreciate your boundaries.
  • If Sandy threatens to quit over every challenging thing, say farewell to Sandy.
  • Good, then you can replace them with a family who respects your policies.
  • If it is your responsibility, don’t shirk it. Leaders confront challenges straight on.
  • Stop being “busy” and start engaging with your people.
  • Yes they will. They love leaders with appropriate boundaries. Strong teachers dedicated to their profession do not respect leaders who are pushovers.

Want to dig deeper into having challenging conversations with teachers that result in improved school climate? Check out the amazing resources in my FREE e-course “Hire & Keep Great Teachers.” Everything you need to recruit, onboard, and support successful teachers is there. Try it out!

Hear Them Out

If a member of your community is coming to you with a request or an idea, genuinely hear them out. Do your best to consider their perspective. Be grateful that they came to you and want a dialogue.

Let them share the facts as they see them. Give them space to question and comment. Consider if there is any way that this idea is possible without being problematic. (I realize “possible without problematic” is somewhat vague, but who knows what kind of conversations you might be having!)

Do your best to identify the emotions attached to the request. Honor them directly, if appropriate. Be as humble and human as possible while listening to the request.

Then, if you know that this request is one you can’t honor, clearly say “no” and tell them why.

Do Not Apologize

There is NO need to apologize for saying no to someone! If you genuinely considered the request and used facts and context to inform your decision, you did the right thing.

Just because someone doesn’t like the boundary you have set, doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate. Sometimes leaders have to set a limit. Healthy boundaries make for thriving schools…and people.

One of my favorite writers, Desiree Adaway says, “do NOT apologize” and she is so right.

You should never feel the need to say you are sorry for holding someone to policy, asking for what you deserve, or keeping clarity in your vision.

Many of us were conditioned in childhood to fear setting boundaries. We carry that conditioning into adulthood. Healthy boundaries are good for you. When you are a leader with clear expectations and clear boundaries, you create space for your team to do the same. You set the tone for culture in your school.

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