‘Karen’ is a keener. She is passionately committed to making a contribution in as many different sectors as possible. She has a regular consultant engagement at 32 hours per week, two board roles, a contract with another government agency for a special project, and a volunteering position for her local council. She is away from home 334 nights per year.

She loves it all.

What she doesn’t love is the toll it’s taking on her health and relationships. Or lack thereof.

Here’s the thing:                 

The long game needs a tight rein.
If we are to continue to make an impact and be productive, we need strong boundaries around our time and energy.

Arianna Huffington wrote about the perils of overcommitment in her popular book, Thrive. For Arianna it took passing out at work from exhaustion and cracking her skull open to appreciate the body has limits.

Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence published a report earlier this year with this astonishing research result: 1 in 5 highly engaged employees are at risk of burnout. We both love our work too much.

Being a Boundless Leader does not mean there are no bounds when it comes to our health and commitments. We need to choose what we say yes to.

As Boundless Leaders we see opportunities and potential in most things and are subject to say ‘yes’ and suffer the consequences later.

The challenges is less about saying ‘no’ but being more intentional about how and what we say yes to. This helps keep our calendar fluid rather than reverting to one that is full.

Strong boundaries can still be permeable. Less like walls and more like strainers: they can keep the good stuff and let the detritus drain away.

Here are some questions to help strain the opportunities that come your way:

1. Why do I really want to say yes to this? 
Duty? Obligation? Social norms? Family pressure? Peer pressure? A positive response to any of these taints the opportunity with heaviness that will drain our mojo. These are not in the YES boat.

2. If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a hell no! 
I learned this phrase years ago from a mentor and love it! It helps keep the yes decision clean and energised.

3. Does it support my purpose? 
It might be cool and exciting. Is it going to support our personal leadership agenda? If not leave that opportunity to someone else.

4. Is it in line with my values?
Saying yes needs to have an integrity resonance. Otherwise we are wasting other people’s time and energy while draining our own mojo.

5. Does it change my calendar from fluid to full?
Adding more things into the calendar can make the thing bulge at the seams and go rigid. And a rigid calendar is a fragile one. It does not take much to see it crack and crumble. If the doing of this commitment will steal from the important strategic thinking we need to do, or rest, or recreation, then shift something out to make room, or this one does not get a yes.

6. What will it cost me to say yes?
It could be in the form of energy, freedom, money, opportunity, time, growth. Anything we say yes to means something else gets let out. How big is the cost?

7. What will it cost me to say no?
Sometimes the answers to question 1 come back in here. When we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on social and relationship constructs is a tricky thing. Being conscious that we are doing so gives us an opportunity to be more self-authoring around this.

Wayne Dyer is often quoted as saying, “Relationships based on obligation lack dignity.” I tend to agree. We denigrate ourselves in our bowing to obligation. There is no dignity in it, nor is there grace.

If we have strong filters to what we say yes to, how then do we decline those scintillating opportunities? Here are a few let-them-down-gently phrases.

  • I am already committed elsewhere. May I recommend so-and-so who who might have availability?
  • This is beyond my scope of current commitments. May I circulate it to a colleague?
  • I don’t believe I am the right person for this. May I recommend this to so-and-so?

The general rule is that if you can, defer it to someone else so you can still be in service.

Karen the Keener and I will be working over her calendar and choices to make sure that everything in there is a hell yes, is in line with a fluid calendar, and she can chill out and just BE. More mojo, less stress. Bring on the new year!

We are making space for this kind of contemplation and conversation at the Edge of Leadership UnConference March 21-22 2019. Come and have wonderful exploration with us.



  • Zoë Routh

    Australia's Leadership Expert, Author of Book of the Year "People Stuff" l Speaker l Mentor l Strategist

    Zoë Routh is one of Australia’s leading experts on people stuff - the stuff that gets in our way of producing results, and the stuff that lights us up. She works with the growers, makers, builders to make people stuff fun and practical.

    Zoë is the author of four books: Composure - How centered leaders make the biggest impact,  Moments - Leadership when it matters most, Loyalty - Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and build lifelong advocates, and People Stuff - Beyond Personalities: An advanced handbook for leadership. People Stuff was awarded Book of the Year 2020 by the Smart WFM Australian Business Book Awards.

    Zoë is also the producer of The Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast.