Since all leaders have to deal with negativity and criticism, regardless of position or profession, it’s important for them to learn to handle it constructively. Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Criticism is something you can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” However, that isn’t an option for anyone who wants to be successful as a leader. So what do you do? The following four-step process has helped me to deal with criticism, so I pass it on to you.
Know Yourself—This Is a Reality Issue
As a young leader you soon learned that having an upfront position was certain to draw criticism, no matter who the leader was or what he did. Highly visible leaders often have to function in difficult environments such as the office in which the following sign is said to have been displayed:
So if you are automatically going to be criticized if you are a leader, what should you do? First, have a realistic view of yourself. That will lay a solid foundation for you to handle criticism successfully. Here’s why: Many times, when a leader is being criticized, it’s really the leadership position that prompts the negative remarks, not the individual leader. You need to be able to separate the two, and you can do that only when you know yourself. If a criticism is directed at the position, don’t take it personally. Let it roll off of you. Knowing yourself well may take some time and effort.
As founding father Benjamin Franklin observed, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” However, the effort is worth the reward. You have to admit that the majority of criticism that you have received over the years was directed more at you than at the position you held. Often people have tried to help you to know more about yourself. From those criticisms you have learned much about yourself, including the following:
- I am impatient.
- I am unrealistic about the time tasks take and how difficult most processes are.
- I don’t like to give a lot of time or effort to people’s emotional concerns.
- I overestimate the ability of others.
- I assume too much.
- I want to delegate responsibility too quickly.
- I want options—so many that I drive everyone crazy.
- I don’t care for rules or restrictions.
- I determine my priorities quickly and expect others to have similar attitudes.
- I process issues quickly and want to move on—even when other people aren’t ready to.
Obviously, the things you have found out about yourself that you are not flattering. Yet those weaknesses are a reality. So the question is, what am you have to do about it?
Change Yourself—This Is a Responsibility Issue
When someone’s criticism about you is accurate, then you have a responsibility to do something about it. That is part of being a good leader. If you respond correctly to your critics by examining yourself and admitting you shortcomings, then set yourself up to begin making positive changes in your life.
Author Aldous Huxley remarked, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you mad.” My first natural reaction to criticism often isn’t good—it’s sometimes hurt, but more often anger. But after my anger has subsided, I try to determine whether the criticism is 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 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 the criticism 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.
Whether the criticism is legitimate or not, what determines whether you grow from or groan under unwanted words is you attitude. Some says, “Some leaders are like seagulls. When something goes wrong, they fly in, make a lot of noise, and crap all over everything.” People with that kind of attitude not only refuse to take responsibility for their contribution to the problem, but they also make conditions terrible for the people who work with them.
People can change for the better only when they are open to improvement. For that reason, when you am criticized you try to maintain the right attitude by
- not being defensive,
- looking for the grain of truth,
- making the necessary changes, and taking the high road.
If you do those things, there is a very good chance that you will learn things about yourself, improve as a leader, and preserve the relationships you have with others.
Accept Yourself—This Is a Maturity Issue
Jonas Salk, developer of the Salk polio vaccine, had many critics in suite of his incredible contribution to medicine. Of criticism, be 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? They learn to accept themselves.
If you have endeavored to know yourself, and have worked hard to change yourself, then what more can you do? Professor and author Leo Buscaglia counseled, “The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be. Don’t let them put you in that position.” To be the best person you can be—and the best leader—you need to be yourself. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t willing to grow and change. It just means that you work to become the best you that you can be. And as psychologist Carl Rogers remarked, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Being who you really are is the first step in becoming better than you are.
If you worry about what other people think of you, it’s because you have more confidence in their opinion than you have in your own. Executive coach and consultant Judith Bardwick says, “Real confidence comes from knowing and accepting yourself—your strengths and limitations—in contrast to depending on affirmation from others.”
Forget Yourself—This Is a Security Issue
The final step in the process of effectively handling criticism is to stop focusing on yourself. When we were growing up, a lot of us spent a good deal of time worrying about what the world thought of us. Now I’m sixty, and I realize the world really wasn’t paying much attention.
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.
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.” I must say, for years I have entertained myself.
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 take hits from others. But that’s okay. That is the price for being out front.