Recently, I have been noticing a common theme when I work with student leaders—perhaps it has always been there, but there seems to be a profound sense of stress and fatigue among them.  They use phrases like stressed, burnt out, and “over it” when I ask them how they are feeling as a leader.

I posed this question to an online group of past and present leadership academy students—what is the main reason leaders say “yes” to everything, despite being over-extended?

Their answers were profoundly insightful.

Broken down into the most-broad categories, they said they always say yes for one of four main reasons:  habit, ensuring everything is done correctly, building their resume or, most-tellingly, trying to please everyone.

The last one really struck me—as someone who encourages, coaches, mentors and champions the exploits of student leaders, am I guilty of being one of those they are trying to please?  Probably so.

To the leaders reading this article, I want to offer you a simple, yet important, piece of advice:

It’s okay to say no.


I believe all highly successful people have to find an appropriate balance in their lives.  They have to determine how to prioritize their time, effort and energy and best distribute it to what really matters.  They know a secret we can all learn from—imbalance hinders success.

College administrators and faculty members are often guilty of presenting more and more opportunities to the best and brightest students.  This isn’t their fault—you, as an extraordinary student, appear to have everything under control.  The opportunities are ways in which the college is rewarding your efforts.

But, it is okay to say no.  Allow yourself the freedom to not feel guilty when you have to prioritize your “self” above the wishes of others.  I wrote a piece a few weeks ago urging us to consider the word selfish as something more than a negative term.  In it, I said “We need to purposefully reframe the concept of selfish to include the importance of self-love and personal well-being.”

Saying no as a student leader is okay; in fact, in some cases it might be the best answer.  Here are some things to consider the next time you are presented with an opportunity you may need to reject:

1)  This will not be the last.  Please trust me; no matter how awesome this trip, project or activity might seem there will be others.  Declining today’s offer doesn’t mean another won’t be presented tomorrow.

2)  You shouldn’t feel guilty.  Prioritizing your needs, including your academics, jobs, relationships, etc. is not a bad thing.  In fact, a sign of growth is the ability to be true to your goals and prioritize accordingly.

3)  You passing on an opportunity can present a chance for someone else to shine.  This might send chills down the backs of you chronic over-achievers.  However, it is important, I believe, to remember your role as a leader is not only to accumulate as many trophies and accolades as possible.  It is also essential for you to build the capabilities of those you are leading.  Feel like you need to decline an offer from your advisor?  Why not suggest someone else to take your place?  Make the path a bit smoother for the next generation; the sign of great leadership!

Ultimately, this dilemma comes down to issues of capacity and care.  You simply do not possess the capacity to do everything, to accept every opportunity or challenge put before you.  Embrace that idea.  Care enough for yourself, your goals, and those who look to you for leadership to occasionally pass.

It’s okay to say no.