One of the immutable laws of leadership is that leaders get criticized. Throughout recorded history, when a leader has emerged, so has the criticism of what they are doing. This has been shown to be true in this country all the way back to George Washington, the man who is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of our country, and the first president of the United States. With the myth that has evolved around Washington and his leadership, it is difficult to believe that anyone would have, or even could have criticized him. They did. And many of them were actually thrown in jail for doing so. I guess they knew better how to deal with critics and criticism back then.
Can you imagine the prison issues that would occur today if they could still throw everyone who criticized the president in jail?
The point here is that Washington took a stand. Because of the stand he took, he was asked to lead. He had an opinion and a position, and actually had the temerity to act upon them. Washington was a Federalist. He supported a strong federal government. His critics were Republicans (who should not be confused with today’s republicans) who believed that the majority of governmental authority should be vested with the states.
Washington acted upon his beliefs and the criticism raged. There were editorials in several newspapers of the time literally calling for the hand of God to intervene in the activities. This was pretty scathing stuff for the time. You didn’t just call upon God for any old issue. If you were going to call upon Him you apparently really had to mean it.
But this was George Washington; the man who threw a dollar across the Potomac River; the man who chopped down the cherry tree and couldn’t tell a lie; the man who led the armies of the American Revolution and won. Here he was being criticized, more than just a little vigorously, for doing what he had been called upon and put in the position to do.
Fast forward about sixty years to another one of the great leaders of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Half of the then country was so critical of his activities and policies that tried to secede from the union. This plan obviously did not go over well and the result was one of the bloodiest conflicts in our nation’s history. It also ultimately cost him his life at the hands of an assassin who also did not agree with his policies.
So, enough of the history lesson. What is the point, you may ask.
The point that I choose to make here is that if you choose to be a leader, you are going to be criticized. Opinions and positions are polarizing. There will always be those that immediately agree with you, and those that immediately, and sometimes irrevocably disagree with you. There are going to be people that regardless of the obviousness, intelligence or palatability of the position that you are taking are just not going to agree with you. They are going to criticize you.
Once the criticism starts, how you handle it will tell much about your leadership character and capabilities. After many years of both dizzying success and abysmal failure at handling criticism, I will share some of the things I have learned in how to handle criticism. A sort of leadership behavioral Dos and Don’ts for handling critics and their associated criticism:
Do: Understand that it is easier to oppose an idea that it is to generate an idea. You may have spent a significant amount of time taking multiple factors into account in presenting or proposing something. You have created something where before your idea there was nothing. Not everyone can do this.
Understand that it does not take near that amount of effort to create any criticism to your proposal or idea. In fact, in many instances you may notice the criticism is almost instantaneous, especially if you present your plan in person in front of multiple people. Picture the image of pouring blood into piranha filled waters.
Don’t: Don’t question the intellect behind any criticism. As I just noted, it is much easier to provide criticism of an idea than it is to provide an idea. You may infer that I think that critics are only those people of lower intellect. This may or may not actually be the case. Now critics may defend their position in this intellectual argument by noting that by conserving their precious few available brain cells by only creating critiques instead of creating ideas, that they may actually be truly benefitting the company. They can state that you can never tell when you may actually have to rely on a critic to create a new idea, and they want those limited number of brain cells in reserve for when or if they are ever called upon for independent thought.
Personally when I need new ideas generated I prefer to call on people who have demonstrated the ability to think independently and generate ideas.
Perhaps you have heard how some people try to generalize society into the “haves” and the “have nots”. This may be incorrect on so many levels but I am not here to argue that point. I only use it as an illustration of how we like to categorize people. I think the equivalent bifurcation of people in business would be the “idea generators” and the “critics”, or maybe more accurately the “thinks” and the “think nots”.
Do: When criticized focus on the idea not the person. It is very easy to get defensive about our creations. Any criticism of them is almost too easy to take as a personal attack or direct insult on us. Whether this is the actual case or not is not important. Focus on the idea and content being supplied. Do not get wrapped up in the person providing or the method they are providing it.
Remember the old adage: Even a blind pig will occasionally root up an acorn. So it is with critics. Occasionally they can and even do provide valuable input. It is possible that one of their critiques will have merit. I personally have never seen this, but I have heard the business legends, myths and stories of it actually occurring.
Don’t: Don’t refer to your critic as a “blind pig” or any other name should their criticism eventually prove fruitless or unfounded. Take the high road. And remember “myopic swine” is not the high road either.
Remember that invariably facts will be your friends. Get the data. Do the research. Deal with the idea not the person. Reduce the criticism to a provable or disprovable point and work on it from that point of view. Leadership is about assimilating input, even inaccurate critical input. Leadership is not about getting those people who agree with you to align. It is about getting those that do not agree, the critics, to align.
Notice I didn’t say accept. I said align. It is possible that some critics will never accept your proposal or idea. After all, their criticism is as dear to them as your idea is to you.
When you look back at Washington and Lincoln, one of the traits that made them great leaders was the way they responded to criticism. Regardless of how harsh or personal or unfounded the attacks were, they dealt specifically with the issues or business at hand. They did not respond in kind to spurious criticism. They focused on the idea and the objective they needed to achieve.
Most importantly they as leaders moved forward with their ideas and plans. They acted. They got things done regardless of and in some instances in spite of their critics and criticism. They didn’t let the criticism get them down nor slow them down.
In business there will always be those that for whatever reason will tell you that your ideas or plans will not work. It is okay to listen to them, but it cannot be allowed to become the reason for not moving forward, nor can the fear of such criticism be the reason that you did not bring forward a new idea.