When criticism comes …

One of the things we just need to accept (and even embrace) as leaders is that we will be criticised.  There is no doubt that there is a difference when you step up to leadership – it is like targets are drawn on your back and front.

Sometimes criticism will be unfair but, more often, there will be at least some truth to the criticism.

There are numerous examples of criticism in the Bible:

  • Jethro rightly criticised Moses for taking too much on himself (Exodus 18);
  • Nathan the Prophet rightly criticised King David for his sin (2 Samuel 12);
  • The Apostle Paul confronted Peter about his hypocrisy (Galatians 2).

The thing to note about each of these examples is that the person acted appropriately and correctly:

  • They all went to the person directly;
  • They all acted out of genuine concern and love for the person;
  • They weren’t speaking out of assumption or ignorance but knew the issue well.

However, criticism will not always be delivered that way.  So, here are some thoughts about how to deal with different types of criticism:

  • Have the humility to accept criticism.  Criticism is never fun but we need to have the humility to apologise where appropriate and to make changes where appropriate.
  • When valid criticism is delivered badly. Sometimes we can miss good, constructive criticism because it is delivered badly.  Someone may be pointing something out that needs to be addressed but they do it poorly, so we miss it;
  • When valid criticism is delivered by the “wrong” person. There are some people who always seem to be critical.  They never have a kind or encouraging word to say and the only time they speak to us is to be critical.  We see them coming and we know what is coming.  It can be easy to dismiss criticism from that person because everything they say is negative.  With both the first point and this one, it is important that we can see past the rubbish to get to the gold, which is the valid criticism;
  • When invalid criticism comes our way.  Some criticism is just plain wrong or a misunderstanding.  In those cases, we need to discern the best course of action:

    • Resist the desire to justify yourself.  Try not to take the criticism personally. We have a natural inclination to justify ourselves and “defend our castles.”  Resist that urge.
    • Decide if you need to respond.  Sometimes the critic needs to know they are wrong.  Other times, it’s better to not respond.  As the old saying goes, “Sometimes silence is the best answer.”
    • Look for the nugget of truth.  The overall criticism may be wrong but there is probably a nugget of truth there somewhere. Be willing to do the hard work of finding the golden nugget.
  • When our team is criticised.  This can be a really hard one because we have so much invested there.  While we don’t need to take the criticism personally, we should always be our team’s biggest cheerleader.  There may be valid criticism that needs to be addressed but we address that with our team by honouring their hard work.
  • When we don’t meet people’s expectations.  I think this is the hardest one of all because sometimes our expectations do not match those of others.  We need to be really discerning here to determine if either set of expectations are unreasonable or just different. 

As much as criticism may sting, it is profoundy helpful to us when we process it well.

One of the recurring themes of these blog posts has been the importance of leading in community.  We’re not meant to lead in a vacuum.  We need other people to keep us accountable, correct us and encourage us when we need it. Sometimes we need someone to say the following to us:

  • “You were wrong to act like that there.  You need to apologise to that person.”
  • “The criticism you just received wasn’t fair. You’re doing a great job.”
  • “I know that criticism hurt but there is truth there.”
  • “I’ve got your back.”

The way leaders deal with criticism becomes a model to those who follow us. We can aspire, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to be humble students, who are always looking to do better for Jesus, while also resting in our identity in Christ, so that we are not crushed by criticism, but equipped by it.

“Everyone really does win when a leader gets better.” (Bill Hybels)

God said to the Israelites, “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:15)

Heavenly Father, I accept that, as a leader, criticism will come my way. Please help me to hear the truth in criticism, to be secure enough in you to not be crushed by unfair or personal criticism and bold enough to be vulnerable.  Amen