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.

Business Lessons I Learned (or Re-Learned) When My Son Started to Drive.

I am now entering one of the most difficult stages of my life. My teenage son is starting to learn to drive. This is not a process, or a stage of life for the faint of heart. There is really nothing in life that can prepare you for this eventuality. All children do grow older, and eventually ask you for the keys to the car. It is a rite of passage for you both. Them the asking for the keys and the stepping across a metaphorical threshold into a new freedom and you granting the keys and then being cast down into a previously unknown dark world of fear and discomfort.

With all that being said I have searched for methods and experiences that I can use to help him and me cope with this situation. I think it might be better said that he does not really see a need to cope with this situation. It is obviously I who must cope with the fact that he does not see the need to cope with the situation. I think I may have come up with a few corollaries.

I am choosing to treat his beginning to drive in much the same way that you treat a new employee when they first come on the job. New employees have such high hopes of what they can achieve. Hiring businesses have such high expectations of what the new employees will accomplish. The reality of the situation is somewhat different for both of them.

Now my son has never had a job. He much prefers playing video games to working. However, I have had several jobs and have brought on many new hires into their first jobs and I do see some parallels. If a company ever adds a CVGO – Chief Video Game Officer to their executive suite of CEO’s, COO’s and CFO’s, it is possible that my son could conceivably be considered over qualified. Until then, we’ll go with the new hire analogy.

My son and I were driving along in my car when he started the conversation about which type of car he would like when he gets his driver’s license. I drive a rather non-descript car that is just large enough for me to transport my upright bass to Jazz gigs when I am asked to play. It was the deciding factor in my car selection decision. Car options and coolness factor really didn’t come into play for me. It does for him.

He on the other hand is more interested in how he will be perceived in his car by his female peer group and how fast the car will go. This is where the setting of new hire expectations comes into play. Most new hires are looking for positions and work that is commensurate with their opinion and vision of their own capabilities. They in effect want to go fast and look good.

We all think that we are capable of trading paint with any of the Sunday afternoon NASCAR drivers, but in reality we know we can’t. The same goes with my son, and new hires. I needed to tell my son where the light and windshield wiper switches were in the car. Aside from this he is ready to go. NASCAR here he comes. Step on the gas and turn left.

However it has been shown that new drivers and new employees need to learn how to handle their cars and responsibilities before they get to go fast. My son will get a “learner’s” car that will be able to absorb some abuse as he works to perfect his capabilities. This is also usually the way that new hires gain experience in an organization as well.

My son has told me a few times that he has observed me while I drive and that in fact it looks like a relatively simple operation. I told him that I once observed a juggler while he juggled running chainsaws. The juggler was very adept at juggling and it appeared as though anyone should be able to juggle chainsaws. However, I chose not to try. The same thing goes for driving if you haven’t done it before. The same thing goes for business as a new hire.

This is why there are such a large number of Driver’s Educational institutions in our area. The law here (Texas) states that there will be a specific number of class hours (training) and a specific number of supervised driving hours (practice) before a driver’s license will be issued. Who would have thought that both training and practice would be required in order to successfully obtain a goal, be it the proper and safe operation of a car on the public streets, are the successful integration of a new hire employee into the proper conduct of a business?

Newly minted drivers, like newly minted employees feel like they are ready for anything. After all, they are fully licensed. New drivers have a driver’s license; newly hired employees usually have a diploma. Both documents are designed to confer and bestow privileges and capabilities upon the owners of them. The truth is that these documents confer the capability; they do not provide any assurance of success.

This is why there is insurance. For those of you that have already bought insurance for a new driver, you already know what I am about to say. For those of you with future new drivers, please take note.

Insurance for new drivers is unequivocally expensive. Start saving for it now, regardless of how old your children are. Like college tuitions, chances are that whatever you save for new driver insurance will not be enough.

The reason that new driver insurance is so expensive is because the chances are very good that despite all the training and practice, the new driver is going to make a mistake and have an accident. Again, I think the same goes for new hire employees, and just about anyone else trying something new for the first few times. There is nothing like the first few live fire business events. This is where they gain experience, and as I have noted before, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.

Unfortunately there is no insurance that can be bought for new hires in business. It can be provided however in the form of oversight and supervision. Spending a little extra time with new hires on a regular basis is probably the best insurance policy available in business. It’s like riding along in the passenger seat while my son is driving. I don’t have my hand on the wheel, or my foot on the brake, but there is another set of eyes watching the road and looking out for potential issues on the road.

Also, my son learning to drive has (re)taught me patience. He does not have the same experience driving that I do. He hasn’t learned to anticipate what he may face. This is much like the new hires in the office. They too want to be successful, and while they may have many of the capabilities for success, they still need to learn, or be shown how to succeed.

New drivers and new employees in general understand the theories of driving and business, and they may actually have some experience in real life applications, but that doesn’t mean that they can just be turned loose to fend for themselves, either on the road or in the business environment, especially if your goal for them is long term success. Active mentoring and a measured introduction into more complex / higher speed environments will help minimize the dents and bruises to egos, careers and cars. It takes a little more effort, but the dividends do pay off.

Finally, this new world of my son driving has also taught me the value of antacid tablets. That is something I have never needed at office.

You Don’t Know

Over time I have learned that I don’t know everything. I am going to pause for a minute here for several reasons. The first is for effect. The second is so that I can let the hysterical laughing and rampant applause in general die down. The third is so that I can go and pick my wife up off the floor. I believe that she was so convinced that I did in fact know everything that my admission that I didn’t has created such a shock to her system that she fainted. That must be it. I am sure of it. It is one of those things that I do know. Doesn’t every wife believe in the infallibility of their husband?

At least that is the interpretation of her response that I am choosing to believe.

The next thing you know I will be asking for directions when I am lost, or reading the instructions on how to put something together before I actually start to do it.


Now remember I said I didn’t know everything. I didn’t say that I didn’t know anything. (My wife is now looking at me out of the corner of her eyes again. This time I am not sure how to interpret her behavior.) I would like to hope that after all the experience that I have gotten (Randy Pausch, the author of “The Last Lecture” said “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”, and there are so many things that I have wanted and not gotten that I could conceivably be considered one of the most experienced people around) and all the book learning that I have done in college and elsewhere, has enabled me to know a few things.

One of the things that I do know is that there is more information out there about every business topic, business issue and business opportunity than can ever taken into consideration when a decision is to be made an action taken. I didn’t let this fact stop me. I openly suggest that you don’t let it even slow you down. I do think that you need to be aware of it, and prepare for that rarest of rare days when one of your assumptions, decisions or actions turn out to be the wrong one. There is also one other thing that you need to be aware of when making decisions or taking actions in business.

Everyone is fighting a battle that you don’t know about.

I saw this line on a LinkedIn splash page of all places. Like so many other seemingly non-business related comments or topics, this got me to thinking about business, sales and how to lead.

I have stated in the past that business is all about the person to person interactions between people. All too often we have our decision made and our actions decided. All that is left is to align everyone else with our obviously well thought out and logical approach to things. It should be easy. We are already on to the next topic in our minds. Only the people who should see the obvious wisdom of our leadership, don’t seem to be catching on as quickly as we would like or expect. They seem to have their own views as to what should be done.

It’s hard to have a broad view of things in business when you don’t have a broad responsibility. You have to think in terms that are larger than the topics and areas that you can affect. Not everyone does this. That is an understatement. Very few people seem to do this. You have to understand something about the battles that other people are fighting. You have to do this while understanding and fighting the battles that are your own. It takes extra effort.

You have to understand the issues that external competitors are visiting upon sales opportunities as well as the unknown / political issues that the customers themselves are bringing to bear when arguing pricing or deal desirability with the sales team. Having been there, it should be understandable why so many sales teams seem to get more frustrated with their own companies than their competitors, when they focus solely on one internal metric instead of the broader customer requirement.

Conversely, the same can be said about the sales team that only looks at the sales volume and does not take the time to understand the company’s cash flow or profitability issues when they bring a customer opportunity to the table. Orders are always good, but it is the answers to the questions such as if and when the company will get paid that will keep the company in business. It may be hard to understand or even believe, but there is actually some business out there that is not worth having. The key is to be able to identify and differentiate it from the other more desirable types of business.

The point that I am so clumsily trying to make here is that we all are going to encounter resistance in the normal course of the execution of our business responsibilities. How we deal with that resistance will have a great deal of impact on how we are to be perceived as leaders. We all have a tendency to only examine issues from our own specific perspective or point of view. The leader will try to understand the larger issues, even if they are not responsible for them. The leader will try to understand what the unknown battle is that the other person is fighting.

The question that then arises is how does the leader know what they don’t know?

Despite the very Zen sound of this question, it is somewhat the basis of leadership. It is not enough to know that someone is providing resistance to a desired course of action. It is more so knowing why they are providing resistance and how to resolve, reduce or avoid it altogether.

Fortunately, there are few people who are so contrary in nature as to oppose our every idea solely on the basis of who made it. Those that do behave this way are normally referred to as “spouses”, and again fortunately, most of us do not work in business with our spouses.

What that means is that in general, there will probably be either a known or unknown battle that people are fighting that will be a cause for any perceived resistance to your plans and activities. Understanding what the external pressures and unknown battles are will enable the business leader to position their requirements in such a way as to avoid the conflicts associated with these unknown battles.

It’s not enough for the leader to say what they don’t know. They have to understand why they don’t know. Continue reading You Don’t Know