Raising the level of your leadership

Not For The Thin-Skinned

Some things never change. It was about 2300 years ago when the Greek philosopher Aristotle said:

Criticism is something we can avoid easily by…doing nothing….”

About 100 years ago, our philosopher president, Teddy Roosevelt said:

“It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.”

If you want to avoid the critics, then do nothing and accomplish nothing. Don’t run for president. Don’t aspire to leadership in your company. Don’t make suggestions. Don’t volunteer. Don’t become a pastor or school principal. Don’t get “in the arena” (another familiar Teddy Roosevelt quote) and stay out of the kitchen. The kitchen is always hot for leaders. Leadership is not for the thin-skinned who wither every time the critics show up, and they will always show up if you are trying to do something significant. So let me make it simple for you: if you can’t handle criticism, you won’t be able to lead effectively.

Since every leadership situation is different, there is not a one size fits all formula for coping. My suggestion is to answer the following four questions as fully and honestly as you can before you respond to the critics.

Question #1:  Who or what is the target?  Criticism can be specific to the leader: “she’s a lousy CEO” or “he can’t preach worth a flip.” It can be directed at a group: “union members are lazy and overpaid” or “the engineers don’t know how to design anything we can actually build.” A project can be the target of criticism: “buying that machine is a waste of money” or “why on earth do we need a new building for the children’s ministry?” Though all criticism may feel personal, it isn’t always personal. Recognizing the target is an important first step in deciding whether to respond and how to respond.

Question #2:  Who is the source?  “Consider the source” is wise counsel. Is the critic an insider or outsider? Is the critic an enemy who would oppose most anything you try to do, or someone who usually—but not this time—supports what you are trying to do? Is the criticism from one person or many? Is the critic someone who believes they have the “gift of criticism” and feels entitled—even obligated—to exercise the gift every chance they get?

Question #3:  What is the motive of the criticism?  Criticism can arise from damaged self-interests, wounded egos, jealousy, hurt feelings, and so on. Sometimes, it arises from well-intentioned and honest disagreement. Understanding the motive—to hurt or help—is a key part of developing your response.

Question #4:  How true is the criticism?  It is a serious mistake to automatically discount all criticism as untrue and irrelevant, no matter the source. Good people with good intentions are sometimes correctly criticized by good people with good intentions. Presume the critic has good intent so you will assess the criticism for truth with an open mind. Don’t try to assess the truth of it by yourself, especially if the criticism is personal. Ask people you trust, “What does this mean and is it true?”

Responding To Criticism  Your response will flow out of the answers to the above four questions. You may—often wisely—choose to ignore the criticism and keep working. If you choose to respond, don’t react quickly or in anger.Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, said it this way:

“Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

So go slowly and be calm. The target of your response should be the criticism, not the critic. The purpose of your response should be to elevate truth, not self. The tone of your response should be to build up, not tear down.

Finally, when the sticks and stones do actually hurt, don’t let criticism turn you into a critic.

© Copyright 2011 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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2 responses to “Not For The Thin-Skinned”

  1. Mitch Anderson says:

    Well said – love the last two paragraphs. I had to learn this by experience a couple of years ago. Often criticism can turn you into a critic but if it doesn’t you come out better on the other side by dealing with it calmly, objectively and with and attitude of thankfulness!

    • Dick Wells says:

      Thanks, Mitch. There are several reasons for criticism; the worst is when the critic is trying to elevate self by tearing someone else down. Sadly, I have been guilty of this more times than I like to admit. Have a great Christmas!

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