Pain of Criticism
Updated: May 1, 2019
The Oxford English Dictionary defines criticism as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” Criticism is a common effect of pain in the life of a leader because his or her choices and actions will always bring opinions, second guesses, and disagreement. Winning basketball coach and best-selling author Rick Pitino states, “Being criticized—fairly or not—comes with the territory and is part of your professional diet. You must understand, as a leader, criticism is here to stay, that it’s a part of your job. So prepare yourself for it.”
There are two types of people in the world: critics and those being criticized. By definition, leaders lead, and critics criticize. Leaders are agents of innovation and change. However, leaders—no matter how great—often find themselves at the mercy of criticism. Henri Nouwen puts the issue of criticism in perspective: “At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. … Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.”
Criticism has always been common to even the best of leaders. Jesus, arguably the greatest leader who ever lived, faced constant criticism. The prophet Isaiah even prophesied of the criticism Jesus would endure and suffer: “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (Isa. 53:3, NASB). In his lecture on “Leadership and Criticism,” Dr. Mike Rakes noted that “criticism was common to Jesus’ ministry.” He explained, “In the life of Jesus we see seven predominant types of criticism he faced: ideological, motivational, comparative, theological, domestic, threatening, and authoritative.”
Criticism is common not only to leadership but also to the human condition, as stated in Luke 6:41–42:
Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.
What causes criticism, and what is its point of origin? Dr. Randal Ross states, “Criticism arises from conflict itself. This conflict is the tension from two forces who want different paths. These opposing values are the intersection or the apex of conflict from which criticism originates.” The greater the value, the greater the conflict, the greater the criticism. Ross continues, “Conflict-based criticism occurs within three areas: intrapersonal, an individual conflict; interpersonal, a community conflict; intergroup, organizational departments in conflict with each other.” Ross notes that conflict-based criticism has five levels of escalation: “The first level is problem awareness; the second level is dissociation with problem or issue; the third level is win versus loss; the fourth is removal (of opposition of ideal); the fifth and final level is destruction (of person or group).” What is the solution to the tension that results from conflict-based criticism? The solution is leadership. The management of this leadership tension is what ultimately defines a leader and the accomplishment of his or her given mission.
Why does criticism bring so much pain in the life of a leader, and why do so many leaders fear it? Leadership expert Mark McGuinness states, “When you’re hit by rejection or criticism, it shakes you to the core. It feels impossible not to take it personally. Logically, it may not be a matter of life and death, or the end of the world, but it sure as hell feels like it. And words most certainly can hurt. Paper dragons breathe real fire.” The multiple reasons for the existence and fearful pain of criticism include failure, rejection, and conflict.
The fear of failure is a real pain of criticism, especially among leaders. Leaders do not like failure for the same reasons followers do not: it becomes a net loss of time and precious resources. However, leaders face the pain of failure to a much greater degree because, unlike a follower, criticism is always associated with a leader’s failure. Criticism due to failure can easily lead to fear in the life and journey of a leader. Best-selling author and leadership expert Seth Godin discusses this fear of failure among leaders in his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Godin explains that failure for the follower is different than for the leader. He states:
Fear of failure is actually overrated as an excuse. Why? Because if you work for someone, then, more often than not, the actual cost of failure is absorbed by the organization, not by you. If your product launch fails, they’re not going to fire you. The company will make a bit less money and move on. What [leaders] are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism. We choose not to be remarkable because we’re worried about criticism.
Godin proposes two questions every leader should ask when embarking upon a leadership decision that could emit a fear of criticism:
“‘If I get criticized for this, will I suffer any measurable impact?’
… And then …
‘How can I create something that critics will criticize?’”
The second fear of criticism among leaders is rejection. Everyone desires to be liked, even as leaders. However, many times leadership demands that individuals shelve their need or desire to be liked for the greater good of the organization they lead and the people they are called to serve. Fear of rejection or lack of approval from colleagues and followers can cause paralysis of leadership due to the impending criticism, whether real or perceived.
Best-selling author John Ortberg discusses the fear of rejection and need for approval as an addiction among leaders. “Why is it we often respond so strongly to criticism? I believe it reveals a serious addiction in many of us … what might be called ‘approval addiction.’ Some people live in bondage to what others think of them.” Ortberg offers a prescription to counteract this addiction with a reference to Paul’s writing to the Corinthian church: “Imagine receiving criticism or judgment as ‘a very small thing.’ Imagine being liberated from the need to impress anyone.” Ortberg concludes, “The primary symptom is the tendency to confuse our performance in some aspect of life with our worth as a person. The result is that we seek a kind of approval from people that can satisfy only when it comes from God.”
The third fear of criticism among leaders is conflict, which is the origin of criticism, as previously discussed. Yet conflict, along with the criticism and confrontation that accompany it, is the responsibility of the leader. Pitney Bowes executive Fred Purdue states, “When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can put the rock down, or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” Best-selling author and leadership expert Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, spends an entire chapter on the fact that leadership has a responsibility to confront brutal facts regardless of criticism. Collins asserts, “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse.” He suggests the following to combat the tendency of leadership to avoid conflict: “Lead with questions, not answers. Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion. Conduct autopsies, without blame. Build ‘red flag’ mechanisms.”
If criticism is indeed part of the leadership landscape, how then do leaders deal with or handle criticism correctly? From a biblical perspective, there are three responses to criticism. First is to listen. Proverbs 15:31–32 says, “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.” Second is to answer. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Third is to dismiss the criticism. Nehemiah 6:2–3 says, “Then Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, ‘Come, let us meet together …’ But they were planning to harm me. So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’”
From a nonbiblical perspective, which is not in conflict with a biblical one, best-selling leadership author and speaker Dr. John C. Maxwell offers a four-step process to deal with criticism. First is to “know yourself—this is a reality issue.” Second is to “change yourself—this is a responsibility issue.” Third is to “accept yourself—this is a maturity issue.” Fourth is to “forget yourself—this is a security issue.”
 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “criticism,” accessed December 7, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/criticism.
 Rick Pitino, Lead to Succeed: 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life, with Bill Reynolds (New York: Broadway Books, 2000), 134.
 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 42.
 Mike Rakes, “Leadership and Criticism” (presentation, Wisconsin/Northern Michigan District of the Assemblies of God, Green Bay, WI, April 13–14, 2005).
 Randal Ross, “Session 3: Conflict Resolution,” (presentation, Calcutta Mercy Conference, Naperville, IL, August 28, 2012).
 Mark McGuinness, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success (N.p.: Lateral Action Books, 2013), 26.
 Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 46.
 Ibid., 48.
 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 158.
 Ibid., 159.
 Collins, Good to Great, 72.
 Ibid., 74–83.
 John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Leading (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 34–38.