Leaders face criticism with regularity. Most don’t enjoy the sting. Over time, many are crushed under the weight, like a roof weakened by too much snow. But have you noticed how some handle criticism better than others? As a young leader, my ability to filter criticism has been one of the most difficult things I have had to learn.
I am a people-pleaser by default, but I realize as a leader that not everyone is pleased by my decisions and actions. One of the slogans I adopted early in ministry was, “My job isn’t to make you happy; it’s to make you grow.” But somewhere deep inside, I wanted people to be happy. Thus my own spiritual and emotional health necessitated I learn how to filter criticism in a healthy and productive manner.
Not all criticism is created equal. Some critiques should merely be set aside and ignored, which, as you’ll see below, isn’t always easy. Yet, every leader has received invalidated or unfair criticism.
On the other hand, and equally important (and perhaps even more difficult), some criticisms are valid and must be heard. These critiques should be humbly considered and appropriately applied to a necessary change.
I mentally sort criticism into the following three categories:
Some drive-by shootings are motivated by personal vendettas, but my guess is most are random shots fired at anyone who happens to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case, the shooter usually just keeps on driving, oblivious and distant from the pain his flying bullets have caused.
This picture describes how some people live much of their lives; they drive through each day, shooting at random people with their words of critique. Perhaps they are motivated by some deep-rooted bitterness or vendetta. Whatever the case, they shoot at leaders, teachers, friends, children, and spouses. They wound many as they drive through life. People tend to duck when they come around for fear they might also become a target.
A critic’s tongue is like a loose weapon (James 3:1-12), and leaders make big, easy targets. The resulting wounds can pierce the heart. Such critics might not even know the toll their words have taken. Their criticism is not sparked by concern or love, but is propelled by pride, bitterness, and/or foolishness.
Emotional Terrorist Criticism
We are too familiar with the scene—a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his body, blowing himself up and killing as many others as possible with him. Terrorists have an agenda. They are often motivated by a deep desire to protect what is most important to them. Thus, their intent is to spark fear with anyone who might threaten their traditions, opinions, or convictions. All who oppose them should be afraid and keep a vigilant eye open for any potential heightening of the threat level.
Emotional terrorists use emotional explosions to strike fear into others. They try to get their way by holding a community hostage in fear of yet another explosion. Motivated by a desire to protect a tradition or conviction, these terrorists often fully believe they are doing God’s work. Some explode for far lesser issues, such as when they see their opinions and preferences threatened. Communities are distracted as they spend countless hours trying to prevent further explosions. Decisions are motivated by fear. Leaders are targeted. Innocent people are mortally wounded. Many more are bruised and battered. And the terrorist? Too often he gets his way or receives so much personal attention that, in either case, it only serves to reinforce his methodologies.
Confession: If I am not careful, I can fall into one or both of the above-mentioned categories in how I criticize those I work with, my family, or those in my community.
“Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:21, 22).
Coach or Teammate Criticism—Arm Over the Shoulder
Often criticism is motivated out of genuine concern for others and/or the community.
In high school, I had one of those intense, old-school football coaches (he had coached my dad two decades earlier). His legacy was one of building successful teams. He inspired individuals to work hard and to give their best for the betterment of the team. Needless to say, I was not the greatest football player, but Coach had a way of putting his hands on my shoulder pads or helmet and inspiring me to do my best for myself and the team. At times, his words were intense and in my face. Other times, his words were uplifting and encouraging. Whatever the case, Coach’s intentions were clear: he cared about us and he cared about the team.
This coaching style of criticism stands distinct from all the other methods due to its motivation and concern for individuals and the community. Notice that a coach might present an opinion that the person he is addressing finds right, wrong, or neutral. Whatever the case, the recipient is made fully aware that the critic’s motivation is out of concern for that individual and/or the community as a whole.
This kind of criticism often comes with a genuine and caring arm over the shoulder. It often comes wrapped in words of encouragement. It is often given with a proviso of unconditional love.
In the moment, a coach’s criticism can still sting. A wise leader must be humble enough to take this kind of criticism into account when making decisions. Wounds like this, from a friend, can be trusted (Proverbs 27:6). Therefore, whether or not these kinds of critique change our decisions or directions, the wise leader will communicate and reinforce that this kind of criticism is welcomed and encouraged.
It is in welcoming and using this kind of rightly motivated, gracious criticism that I have learned that not all criticism is a curse. Instead, many times it is actually a priceless blessing.
Jim Dalrymple is senior minister with First Christian Church of Monticello, Illinois.