Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Criticism is something you can avoid easily—by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Obviously, that isn’t an option for anyone who wants to be successful as a leader.
Good leaders are active, and their actions often put them out front. That often draws criticism. When spectators watch a race, where do they focus their attention? On the front-runners! People watch their every action—and often criticize.
Since criticism is a part of leadership, you need to learn how to handle it constructively. The following has helped me to deal with criticism, so I pass it on to you.
Do you really know yourself? Are you aware of your weaknesses as well as your strengths? Where do you fall short as a person and leader? Not sure what your weaknesses are? Ask five trustworthy people close to you. They’ll be able to tell you where you come up short.
Know the criticism – and the critics.
When you receive criticism, how do you tell if it’s constructive or destructive? (Some say constructive criticism is when I criticize you, but destructive criticism is when you criticize me!) Here are the questions I ask to get to determine what kind of criticism it is:
- Who criticized me? Adverse criticism from a wise person is more to be desired than the enthusiastic approval of a fool. The source often matters.
- How was it given? I try to discern whether the person was being judgmental or whether he gave me the benefit of the doubt and spoke with kindness.
- Why was it given? Was it given out of a personal hurt or for my benefit? Hurting people hurt people; they lash out or criticize to try to make themselves feel better, not to help the other person.
Stay open to change.
Let’s assume you now know yourself pretty well. You can tell when a criticism is way off-base; maybe it’s directed more at your position than at you. And you know when a criticism is 100% legitimate because it’s about a weakness that you’ve already discovered.
But what about the gray areas? The criticisms that might hold a grain of truth? A good leader stays open to improvement by:
- Not being defensive,
- Looking for the helpful grain of truth,
- Making the necessary changes, and
- Taking the high road.
Jonas Salk, developer of the Salk polio vaccine, had many critics in spite of his incredible contribution to medicine. Of criticism, he observed, “First people will tell you that you are wrong. Then they will tell you that you are right, but what you’re doing really isn’t important. Finally, they will admit that you are right and that what you are doing is very important; but after all, they knew it all the time.”
How do leaders who are out front handle this kind of fickle response from others?
The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, gives direction in this area:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
If you have endeavored to know yourself, and have worked hard to change yourself, then what more can you do?
The final step in the process of effectively handling criticism is to stop focusing on yourself. Secure people forget about themselves so they can focus on others. By doing this, they can face nearly any kind of criticism—and even serve the critic.
I try to live out a sentiment expressed by Parkenham Beatty, who advised, “By your own soul learn to live. And if men thwart you, take no heed. If men hate you, have no care: Sing your song, dream your dream, hope your hope and pray your prayer.”
As leaders, we must always be serious about our responsibilities, but it isn’t healthy for us to take ourselves too seriously. A Chinese proverb says, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves. They shall never cease to be entertained.”
My friend Joyce Meyer observes, “God will help you be all you can be, but He will never let you be successful at becoming someone else.” We can’t do more than try to be all that we can be. If we do that as leaders, we will give others our best, and we will sometimes takes hits from others. But that’s okay. That is the price for being out front.