Over the last several weeks, there has been no shortage of criticism for those in leadership positions. Especially regarding our leaders’ preparation and response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the criticism has been extensive.  The media, state and local officials as well as the federal government have all taken turns at poking at the other’s lack of response or “improper” approach. It takes but a few minutes of listening to an interview on the “news” to see how criticism and disrespect for each other abound.

Criticism in Leadership is Everywhere

Whether it be television interviews in which people disrespectfully talk over the top of each other and exchange verbal jabs or a Facebook post lambasting a quote or position: Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart. Leadership is a privilege and a burden. It’s often lonely and wearisome. Thankfully, as leaders, we get to choose how we’ll respond to the criticism we’ll inevitably receive. Here are a few tools that have been immensely helpful in my journey of leading in the midst of and through criticism.

#1 Leading from Identity

In my personal and professional life, having words or imagery that speaks to not only what I do but who I am and who I want to be has been a game changer. The pieces of identity that you carry are powerful in steadying internally and directing externally. These can range from loving partner and kind parent to catalyst, protector, scout or befriend(er).  The list is endless. When the criticism rises to the top, whether from the voice in our head or from those around us, we can turn to those pieces of true identity and respond from who we really are instead of simply reacting out of wounding or offense.

#2 Creating a Safe Place to Provide Context

One of the trickiest dynamics surrounding the area of criticism in leadership relates to many leaders’ lack of approachability.  This is manifest through coming across as being too busy, not listening well or not creating a safe place for concerns to be shared. When leaders are approachable and accessible, we open the doorway to hearing where we can grow and the organization can become better and stronger as a result.  When we’re not approachable or accessible, we can be sure that the same thoughts will be shared behind our backs if not to our faces. This limits our context, reduces our relational trust and creates an avenue for what comes across as distant criticism rather than constructive.

#3 Stay in the Arena

Personally speaking, President Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote is always close by and top of mind.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them betterThe credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

President Theodore Roosevelt, “Man in the Arena”

In any risk worth taking, there will be pain and there will be loss.  We will fall short. The arena can be a wearying place at times. AND, may we spend ourselves in a worthy cause and dare greatly anyway because people’s lives are changed and cultures are shaped by the courageous, caring and thoughtful leadership that we carry.   

Cheers to leading well in the midst of criticism!

Josh Block

Author Josh Block

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