Why? Because real leaders upset the status quo and make people uncomfortable. As Finley Peter Dunne once said about journalists, “Our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The same is true of leaders. Unfortunately, this almost always meets with resistance.
But let’s be honest: criticism hurts. At least it does for me. I’ve been in the public spotlight since my first book, The Millennium Bug, hit the New York Times bestseller list over ten years ago. Writing three more books, becoming a CEO of a large publishing company, and launching a very public blog hasn’t helped.
Theoretically, I know this is just the price you pay. But emotionally, it kills me. It always knocks me off-kilter. You might think I would be past that. But I am not. I obsess about it, spending way more time thinking about it than I should. I wish this wasn’t true, but it is. (Just ask my wife!)
One of the things that has helped me in the past few years is to distinguish between three kinds of critics:
- True friends. Not all criticism is bad. God forbid that we should turn a deaf ear to everyone who disagrees with us. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Some people are in our lives to save us from ourselves. As a leader, the trick is to create an environment that is safe for dissension, so these people can speak up.
- Honest critics. Some people decide that they disagree with you and go public. They aren’t malicious. They aren’t out to destroy you. They simply disagree with you. That’s okay. We need to allow for a diversity of opinion. Besides, we might learn something from it. It enriches the conversation. We need to engage these people and refrain from making it personal. Not everyone has to agree with us.
- Unhealthy trolls. These people have an agenda. They are out to hurt you—or at least use you for their own ends. They want to lure you into a fight. I have had three this week. They taunt and mock you. They are unreasonable. If you engage them, they will only distract you and deplete your resources. The best thing you can do is ignore them. As someone once said, “resistance only makes them stronger.” You will never satisfy them. Just keep doing what you know you are called to do.
As a leader, you must learn to distinguish between these three. I personally assume that everyone is a friend or an honest critic until they prove other otherwise. I may be naive, but I would rather give people the benefit of the doubt than live a life of paranoia. What about you?