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Leaders Shouldn’t Fear Criticism

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“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” ~ Winston S. Churchill

One of the hardest things for leaders (and all people, for that matter) to deal with is criticism. We all want to be right, do right and have others consistently agree with and admire us. But every leader who has been around for even a short while knows that criticism is part and parcel of the experience. There is simply no way of avoiding it.

Consider all of history’s greatest leaders. Regardless of their era and role, every person that we would associate with positively changing the course of history was censured during his or her lifetime, often in scathing, relentless terms. It makes no difference whether they were people of great character or not. Nor did it matter if they were on the winning side of the argument or struggle. If they stood for a cause, led a nation or advanced a noteworthy agenda, then they were at times discouraged, condemned and perhaps even physically impeded from achieving their goals and aspirations.

Such thoughts can be sobering if not outright disheartening. Why would anyone want to assume a leadership position when the potential for constant critique and pushback looms large? Why would anyone want to risk affecting their relationships with friends, colleagues, co-workers and other associates in order to assume a leadership post?

The answer, of course, is that (leaving aside the financial and status perks that they receive) leaders want to make a difference. They recognize that change is not easy for people and that any efforts that demand of others will invariably draw criticism. But they push forward anyway as they deem appropriate, knowing that criticism is simply society’s way of saying that what you’re doing matters and deserves attention.

Of course, there are many things that leaders could and should do to gain support and buy-in, such as building equity, developing a values system, and communicating (and listening) well. Still, there is no leader worth his or her weight in salt that can expect to adequately fulfill their responsibilities without experiencing meaningful criticism and backlash.

Let’s imagine the following scenario. A CEO independently initiates a major change initiative at work. Moving forward, all international accounts will be closed so that the company can focus on its domestic markets. A memo is distributed to that effect and then he announces it at the next company meeting. The leader waits for the fallout, expecting all sorts of pushback. To his utter surprise, there is none. Instead, he is met with absolute silence, as if nothing happened.

How would the CEO feel in such a case? Perhaps he would worry that the conversation has gone underground. Maybe he would come to suspect that the complaints will arrive in another form. But if weeks go by and there is still no critical feedback on the matter, he would have to conclude that he, his initiative, or both are simply irrelevant in others’ eyes.

We’re familiar with the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In modern business terms, the question can perhaps be phrased as follows, “If a leader initiates change and no one comes forth to critique it, did it make a difference?”

It is not my purpose to explain why people criticize, though we can certainly list some common causes, including genuine disagreement, feelings of jealousy or being inconvenienced, and a desire to educate. I simply want to remind every leader that criticism is inevitable, a thought that should hold profound meaning for everyone who is tasked to lead others.

Often we confuse quiet with correctness and water cooler chatter with error. We assume that if the rank and file is agitated then we must have slipped up big time and now need to shift into major damage control. This may be true at times. But it also may simply reflect the fact that what you are doing matters and impacts others in a profound way. Again, in the words of Churchill:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”

I sometimes think of change in terms of an inoculation. We inject a small bit of disease into our bodies so that it can develop the necessary antibodies to survive a more robust invasion in the future. We may briefly enter into an “unhealthy state of things,” contracting fever and other side effects, in order to emerge healthier for the long haul.

Change initiatives are in many ways similar. They can be painful at present, affecting staffing levels, roles, reporting, workloads, work processes and the like. But often these changes are necesssary to ensure the long-term health of the organization.

Sure, leaders need to account for what they do, how they do it, and the impact that it may have on their constituents. But they must also possess the courage and drive to advance change that they believe is proper and necessary. The backlash that they will invariably receive is not necessarily the result of anything bad that they did. Quite the contrary — it may, in fact, be the best indicator that they are on the right path and are doing what is necessary to genuinely fulfill their leadership duties.

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