How to Cope With Criticism As a Leader

Leadership is a big responsibility. It comes with great rewards – people trust you, follow you, admire you, and are inspired by you. Equally, however, it comes with a fair amount of disrespect, fear and the desire to lop the tall poppy. Coping with criticism in a leadership context is not a case of reacting defensively to justify your actions. Instead, it requires a much more expansive comprehension of how your actions are perceived by others and how you perceive their actions. While it's not easy taking the analytical road over the critical, doing so brings the best outcomes for both the short and long terms.


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    Stop deceiving yourself. When somebody criticizes your leadership, it is all too easy to respond by trying to justify your actions and actively try to turn the criticism into praise. If you focus on the feeling of being misunderstood or misjudged, you will place yourself right into the position of defensiveness instead of listening openly. You will be tempted to highlight your achievements, point out how successful your projects are, and how people have rewarded your leadership prowess. At the same time, you might even be tempted to make comparisons with others and point out their failings in comparison with your achievements. Unfortunately, all of these reactions are defensive rather than expansive and mindful.
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    Separate praise and blame from failure and success. Praise for work well done and recognition for achievements are accolades that we all seek and these have their place. Equally, we learn early on the potential benefits of accepting accountability when things go wrong sometimes. But criticism and praise are not indicators of the failure or success of you or your projects; think about how a successful developer will often be criticized by local residents who feel they have lost their amenities despite the project's success, or about all of Thomas Edison's failures receiving praise, despite their failings. Neither example illuminates us as to the real outcome and they both demonstrate that the reality is always much more complex. For you, it means understanding that criticism isn't going to undermine your overall success.
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    Use criticism as a means for improving. Criticism is leveled at leaders for various reasons, with the main one being that people perceive something isn't working to their benefit or for the greater good of something everyone has a stake in. When people feel powerless to initiate change and innovation themselves, the leader is the sensible target for expressing their discontent. First, work out why those you're in charge of might be feeling this way and try to remedy it so that they feel they have a greater ability to innovate, participate in developing solutions, and initiate changes. Second, reflect over the criticism. Often there is the germ of accuracy in even the most negative criticism and if you can pull out something positive from this, it serves not only you but your business, staff, team, community group, project, whatever it is you're leading, will benefit as well. Third, don't take to heart the obviously nasty criticism. There will always be people who lop tall poppies because they feel jealousy or personal frustration at not taking action. Take such nasty critiques in your stride and let it be; simply ignore that type of criticism and get on with what you're doing right. It helps to remember that leaders are the people who act on their ideas whereas many people who criticize with bitterness have had ideas but lacked the will to act.
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    Praise for the sake of recognition, not as a means of deflecting criticism. Always note the good that those working under you do, and always make a point of giving them due credit for their efforts. Don't praise only when you fear criticism, or you will always be on the back foot. Moreover, you don't want people conforming to your way of thinking in order to get your praise; it is very important to praise a job well done even where you disagree with its method, motives, or outcome, provided it enhances the relevant experience and improves the overall prospects of the business/project/activity, etc.
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    Role model dealing with criticism. Let others see good reactions from you when criticized. Your ability to listen and learn, and your ability to acknowledge where you have made mistakes teaches others that it's OK to err and that it's acceptable to change your tactics to ones that are likely to be more effective. That's a lesson that only a leader can effectively teach, from moms to boardroom directors!


  • Leadership is a skill you can learn. Although much has been written about leaders being "born", the true key to leadership is a willingness to take on the role of leading and inspiring others. If you feel strongly enough about something, this passion coupled with an ability to engage others and learn from your mistakes will ensure that you can be a good and solid leader in your chosen endeavor. Don't let people put your leadership style down; leaders don't come in one-size-fits-all molds. Do what is right, be fair, and be open to change, and you will create your own style of great leadership.

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Categories: Leadership and Mentoring | Sports Leadership