Leaders and their critics

Criticism is the leader’s unwritten recompense. Leaders are criticized for issues they have control over as well as those about which they can do nothing. They are criticized for the sublime and the ridiculous, the good and the bad, the significant as well as the mundane. It is absolutely impossible to lead without coming under the attack of critics. As noted by Elbert Hubbard, it is only those who do nothing and are nothing that can escape criticism.

Leaders are subjected to criticism because their actions and inactions shape the destiny of those who are within the scope of their influence. So, when things go awry, whether or not as a result of their direct involvement, they are deemed liable and get lampooned.

In addition, everyone that has a tie to the leader has expectations from him. Once the reality goes contrary to their expectations they criticize the leader. Though some of the expectations may neither be realistic nor justifiable, that will not stop those who are bent on criticizing from exercising their rights of expression, the onus is on the leader to devise ways of creatively handling the criticisms.

Then, leaders are change agents, but it is not everyone that is in love with change. If the change you emplace brings discomfort to some people, do not expect them to applaud your intervention.

It is important for leaders to handle criticism intelligently because if poorly managed, it could bring them down and make mincemeat of their good works. But when rightly handled, criticism can provide a learning opportunity for the leader and serve as the ladder that would elevate him to the pinnacle of his career.


Leaders and criticism

Almost all leaders take criticism to heart; they take it personally when they are criticized. They view criticism as an evaluation of not just their position but also their person. So, they see the criticism of their leadership as a personal attack and rise in the defence of their person. Many leaders will not spare any expense to get good press and muzzle critics. Sometimes, they allow the critics to regulate their actions and control their agenda. When this happens, the leader usually becomes paranoid as he reacts sometimes violently to criticism.

The reason for this is traceable to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to the psychologist, being loved and having a sense of belonging is critical to man. Maslow says every human being wants to be loved and accepted. This longing for love and acceptance is not limited to just his family and friends, he also wants to be loved and accepted by those who are in no way close to him.  This need is strongly opposed to criticism and antagonism. So, when he is criticized, even by those he does not personally know, he feels hurt about it and becomes unsettled.

But really, it is infantile of any leader to take criticism personally for the simple reason that no leader can satisfy the yearnings of all the people he leads. Since he cannot please all of them, there will be discontent among some people, which might result in the criticism of his actions, intentions and even style. Any leader who wants to go far must come to terms with this reality. With this understanding, the leader should develop a thick skin to criticism. What he needs to do is to be guided by a vision that is meant to ensure greater good to a greater number of people. Once he does this, he will be able to make his mark in spite of the din of critics.


A leader’ mistake

Many leaders make the mistake of viewing every critic as an enemy. While many of the criticisms may be founded on anything other than altruism, to treat every critic as an adversary is to be misguided. Leaders are so called because they are expected to rise above certain sentiments. The need to defend one’s reputation and position is innate to man, but leaders are not allowed such luxury by the virtue of the position they occupy. Even when hurt by scathing criticisms, leaders are not expected to let down their guard and allow criticisms get under their skin; they are supposed to take criticisms in their stride, identify the useful part and dump that which cannot be used.

But President Richard Nixon of the United States of America was not able to do that and it cost him his presidency.

Former President Nixon was infamous for the Watergate Scandal but his undoing really was his intolerance of criticism. His journey down the wrong side of history started with his reaction to the protests by American citizens about the Vietnam War. His administration was not favourably disposed to the criticism of his unconstitutional war policy in Vietnam. Despite the guarantee provided by the First Amendment to the American constitution for the citizens to assemble and petition the government for a redress over grievances, the government’s reaction to the public opposition to the war was repression as it prosecuted champions of the protests. Then, it went further to intimidate the press into silence over a number of state issues. Success in these respects emboldened President Nixon to set up a group later known as The White House Plumbers to muzzle opposition and silence critics.

The first assignment The Plumbers got was to find a means of discrediting Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. To achieve this, they resorted to burgling the office of Ellsberg’s Los Angeles psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding, to find evidence against Ellsberg. Not content with that, the administration later set up the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP) whose clandestine operation was targeted at stifling opposition. The committee took on the inglorious task of burgling the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington to photograph campaign documents and bug telephones. When this was found out, the President attempted to stall the investigation of those involved because of their affinity to him. This later boomeranged as it was discovered that the President had used government officials to deflect investigation and prosecution. The House of Representatives immediately commenced impeachment proceedings against him. Knowing that the Senate would also do the same thing, he took the more honourable path of resigning as President on August 9, 1974.

Nixon remains the only president of the United States of America to resign from the position and this was due to his mismanagement of criticisms.


Types of criticism

There are three major types of criticism.


Destructive criticism

Destructive criticisms are meant to pull down leaders. Some people make it their mission to destroy others. They never see any good in anything done by leaders. Such critics look for a hole in an otherwise good move and exaggerate this beyond measure with the intent of casting a pall on the achievement of others. Such criticisms are not issue-based and the purveyors of such will not be appeased until they achieve their aim.

Most people who push destructive criticisms are motivated by envy. They are saddened by the strides you are making and look for ways to run down your achievements. The right response is to ignore them and concentrate on your assignment.


Restrictive criticisms

These are criticisms pushed by those who want you to dance to their tune. Their aim is not to get you unseated but to manipulate you with the intent of making you dispense favour to them. Their criticism is targeted at using you to get what they want. The moment their urge is satisfied they switch to a new tune. But that is just for a while. As soon as they understand that the way to get favours from you is to criticize you, they will do it repeatedly and you will be constantly subjected to harsh criticisms. The best way to handle them is to ignore them. Once they realize that you are unmoved by their shenanigan, they will look for other potential victims.


Constructive criticisms

These are criticisms that point you in the right direction. They do not only point out what is wrong, they also proffer solutions. Those behind such criticisms want the best not just for you but also for the organization or the system. Their criticism is not borne out of any selfish consideration but out of the need to see the organization get better. So, pay attention to what they say.


How to handle criticisms

Leaders must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to criticisms.


Weigh the criticism against the vision

The first step in treating criticism is to measure it against the vision. What is the vision? How does the criticism stand in relation to the vision? Does it add to the vision or detract from it? If the criticism would accelerate the accomplishment of the vision, take it in good faith and thank the one who raised the issue but if it is not in tandem with corporate goals or vision, dump it and move on.


Put yourself in the critic’s position

To make good sense of any criticism, view yourself from the perspective of the critic. Ask yourself, “Were I to be in the other person’s position would I not feel this way?” Your answer to the question should be a guide on what to do with the criticism.


Engage in critical self assessment

The leader needs to assess himself to find out if the criticism against him is of any substance. If the criticism is true, all he needs to do is make amends and move on. If it is not, he should just ignore it and move on as well. Feeling bad because of criticism is like giving the reins of one’s life to others, nothing can be more detrimental than that. The purpose of unworthy criticism is to cause distraction and slow down the leader’s progress, so getting worried about criticism is walking straight into the enemy’s trap.


Rise above the sting of criticism

Criticism is the unrecorded part of a leader’s reward package. Knowing this, a leader should be prepared for a regular meal of criticism. However, he must be able to rise above the sting of criticism to extract the gem contained therein. He must learn to convert the wound of criticism to wisdom so that he can become a better leader. It is the duty of the critic to point out what is wrong but the leader is expected to work on this, turn it around such that it moves from being a sore point to a great gain.


Do what is right

A leader should be guided by the principle of doing what is right in every circumstance, at all times and to everyone. This is the best way to deal with critics. If a leader does what is right, irrespective of the noise of critics, he is able to sleep soundly at night because he has a clear conscience and is at peace with himself. A clear conscience crowds out the noise of naysayers. Doing the right thing may not stop criticism but it dulls its blade, renders it ineffective and turns the critic to a mere noisemaker. As opined by Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister, “There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right.”

Doing the right thing never goes out of vogue.


Eschew resentment

Man, being a retaliatory animal, will naturally want to pay back everyone in their own coin. He will want to show love to those who exhibit love to him and abhorrence to those who despise him. But a great leader does not travel that route. What a great leader does is to go above what is natural and do the unexpected; he shows love to those who naturally do not deserve it. He does not in any way show any form of animosity or ill-will to his critics, rather he extends to them a hand of fellowship. Once, he is able to do that, he shows his superiority to those who may not wish him well. Albeit, a great leader does not do this to stop them from criticizing him; he does it because he knows that as their leader, he has responsibility for his critics as much as he has for his praise singers. As noted by the American writer and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard, “The final proof of greatness is being able to endure criticism without resentment.”


Last line

Leaders need critics to knock off their self-imposed limitations.


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