A true leader genuinely accepts criticism, while acknowledging mistakes | Daily News


Leading your flock into greener pastures – Part 8:

A true leader genuinely accepts criticism, while acknowledging mistakes

Jeff Immelt, Chairman of the US giant General Electric retired in 2017 after counting a total service of 17 years. In his retirement address he said. “I think you can’t do a job like mine unless you’re horribly self-critical. You have to be massively self-aware, because if you’re not, it is so easy to be blind to problems.”

He was right. One way of building your self-confidence during your career is to take responsibility for solving problems or handling difficult situations that you come across, including those to which you contribute or cause. You must also treat it as an opportunity to enhance your skills in solving problems.

Your own critic

There are two types of criticism-delivery. First, you can be your own best critic. It involves adopting a ‘critical friend’ approach in which you constructively criticize yourself. For example, you can focus on questioning your motives, attitude and behaviour in leading people.

Being your own best critic requires you to take 4 actions:

(1) develop a positive ‘I want to (learn to) be better’ mentality to encourage yourself to examine and improve on what you do.

(2) take a few minutes to think about (and note) how you’ve developed as a leader over the last year, and how the changes you’ve made in how you lead have benefitted you and the people who report to you.

(3) be objective in critiquing the action you took and why you took it in dealing with recent problems and difficult situations. Use facts and evidence about each situation wherever you can when conducting your analysis.

(4) build progressively on your leadership strengths by working on the personal insights you gain from constructively critiquing yourself.

Note down the progress you’re making and tell yourself “well done [use your name here]” for solving the problems you encounter.

Learn from adversity

The second type of criticism-delivery is to learn from adversity or misfortunes. To do this, you must become a ‘maximiser’. It means you must always be keen to explore the dilemmas you are experiencing in leading people and find out as much as possible about how to handle ‘people problems’ or ‘problem people’. Of course, it doesn’t mean you create or cause problems just so that you can learn from them, but what you need to do is see problems, difficult situations and dilemmas as opportunities to find out how to handle them effectively. Adopt a positive rather than negative attitude towards difficult situations so that you can learn as much as you can from adversity.


The following short exercise helps to see whether you need to work on developing a more positive attitude:

1. When you’re faced with a problem or difficult situation, take a few minutes to think about the situation and note down the words or phrases that typically come into your mind.

2. Compare your notes with the words in the first column of Table (which you find in this page). If most of the words or phrases in your list are the same as or similar, you probably don’t like, or try to avoid, adversity. Try using the equivalent words or phrase in the second column when you’re faced with adversity, because using these words and phrases give you a more positive attitude to dealing with adversity.

3. Compare your notes with the words in the second column of Table. If most of the words or phrases in your list are the same as or similar, you’re probably willing to tackle adversity.

Accepting criticism from others

Criticism is a natural part of leadership. Leadership is not a popularity contest. Leadership is about doing things what is in the best interest of the organization you are serving. Leaders get paid to make the difficult decisions. So, do not waste time trying to satisfy the agendas of others – rather than focusing on the goals and objectives of the organization. Leadership requires mental toughness. If you are not being criticized, you are not leading and guiding the organization to grow, innovate and explore endless possibilities. You need to be strong and objective to whatever criticism people throw your way.

Much of what ultimately happens is out of your direct control. However, if you can see what others don’t and anticipate the unexpected -- as a leader you will find ways to influence outcomes that benefit those you serve.

Effective leaders stay focused on confronting conflict head on – and move on to the next opportunity. When you get too personally vested, it becomes difficult to handle criticism and you eventually become stereotyped and your authority weakens. You lose momentum as you begin to make poor decisions trying to re-establish and validate your leadership to yourself and others.

As you find success in your leadership journey, the leaches and loafers that are envious of your success may attempt to slow down your momentum.

This is actually a sign that you are on the right path. Being a 21st century leader requires you to be a change agent and people don’t like to change -- especially old-school leaders now focused on retirement or anyone else that has grown complacent and lost their momentum.

Everyone wants to experience success. Unfortunately, momentum is disrupted by those who want the individual credit; the recognition that benefits them comes at the expense of earning the respect that reverberates and multiples throughout the organization for the betterment of a healthier whole.

Four Rules

As you lean-into the challenges and new opportunities that come with them, remember that criticism is a natural process of the leadership journey. Since criticism is never easy to handle, keep the following four ways in mind to ensure you handle it wisely.

1. Don’t play the victim

When criticism strikes, never take on a “why me” attitude. People find it difficult to respect a leader who becomes the victim. The victimization mentality is not a leadership trait, but rather represents an individual that lacks the mental fortitude and composure to be in a leadership role. When leaders play to the victim narrative, it exposes their lack of maturity and doubt rapidly begins to enter the minds of those they lead about their ability to endure the pressure, intensity and uncertainty.

Rather than play the victim, own the criticism and convert it into new opportunities previously unseen. Be a change agent and turn the negativity into a platform to enable growth, innovation and endless possibilities.

2. Don’t react impulsively

When faced with criticism, step back and assess the situation. Be patient, don’t react impulsively. Too many leaders get defensive, focus more on their reputation and overreact, rather than evaluate the situation at hand.

Adversity my make or break you, but it primarily reveals you. Leaders must practice patience when faced with criticism and show a high level of composure and executive presence. Criticism comes and goes. How well you lead through it is what earns you respect from your peers.

3. Don’t take it personally

You must not be worried at all what people say. This does not imply that you shouldn’t work hard or perform at your highest levels – it refers to the importance of not taking criticism personally. As a leader, you must be mindful not to get overly attached to the business and the issues at hand. When you take criticism too personally, it becomes more difficult to be objective towards meeting the needs of the business and the people you lead.

Leadership is not easy and handling criticism is an unwritten rule in the job description. It happens often and if you lead to win, advance others and the organization you serve – you should expect criticism and know how to handle it. Those leaders that take it personally will find their leadership role short lived.

4. Turn criticism into opportunity

Criticism is another way of saying “learning moments.” Though you can never be perfect when leading, you must be open-minded enough to course correct along the way. Leadership requires you to pivot, renew and reinvent yourself. Though you may have experienced success in the past, leadership requires you to invest in yourself so that you can become a better, faster and more fluid change agent.

Great leaders and their organizations are often criticized. As the saying goes, “It’s difficult to get to the top, but even harder to stay there.” Why is it harder to stay on top? Because it’s easy to grow complacent – and it’s difficult to endure the critics that don’t believe you’ve earned the right to be there in the first place. Staying focused is critical when you are a leader and diffusing the noise by staying focused on the next level of evolution in your business will help you shut down your critics.

One of the most important qualities of leadership is being a good listener. And that applies just as much, if not more, when you are being criticized. Don’t try to shut it down. In fact, turn up the volume and really listen to what is being said.

Too many times leaders turn the criticism around on the person speaking up, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to learn from someone else. Listening to criticism is a leadership responsibility that does not appear in the job description, but it can make you a more effective and trustworthy leader if you handle it constructively.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 35 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer. He could be contacted on [email protected])

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