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Criticism And Growth

More than fifty years ago, I believed in the right to competent leadership. But even as a teenager, whether in organized sports or the first part-time jobs I held, I felt that not every coach or boss was competent. And now, near the end of my working career, I still find leaders who are immature, insecure, selfish, and even narcissistic. Of course, some of the incompetence I see is simply reflective of my own incompetence. Despite all the time, money and, other resources invested in leadership development, why are there not more competent and trustworthy leaders? Why are we not developing leaders better than ourselves?

 

2 Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips. (Proverbs 27:2, ESV)

 

The trend of so-called 360-degree leadership evaluation is a good thing when we have competent and honest people in our circle of relationships. If we’re not seeking, developing, and keeping relationship with trusted, honest, and competent leaders both within and beyond our sector of the marketplace, recognizing and reconciling the intrinsic connection between our private and public selves, as well as making sure that we surround ourselves with people who value, praise, and constructively criticize us, our development will not only plateau, but also we will eventually fail as leaders.

 

3 A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both. 4 Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy? (Proverbs 27:3-4, ESV)

 

Like the proverb quoted above, we need to be careful whose voices we hear, as well as careful about the motivation behind both praise and criticism. Of course, when these voices come from our superiors or even our peers, we must be wary of our response. To call a leader a fool could leave us open to charges of insubordination or result in our dismissal. We must be mindful that our reaction to criticism is not the result of our own insecurity or jealousy.

 

5 Better is open rebuke than hidden love. 6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5-6, ESV)

 

Particularly in a multigenerational and multicultural setting, criticism seems more difficult to both give and receive. Triggers and prejudices—not to mention a “you do you and I’ll do me” kind of ethos—seem to dim if not darken the light necessary to see and solve personal and corporate problems. However, there are times and places where our silence worsens problems. When the demands of the world and market are changing, or the demands and expectations on the leadership role require more than candidates are willing and able to give, constructive criticism, helpful example, and assistance must be given by those who are, at least for the moment, more competent for the task or challenge at hand.

 

7 One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet. (Proverbs 27:7, ESV)

 

It is one thing to speak and another to be heard. Without adequate competency and relational equity, even the kindest criticism can trigger or wound another. That is especially likely in a culture or context where direct confrontation is unwelcome. In times of urgency or emergency, correction and direction can be mistaken for confrontation and criticism because of adrenaline and emotion. Even in less urgent situations, those accustomed only to praise and reward will subconsciously view your person, words, and actions as those of a foe, with the result response being fight or flight. Admittedly, the most challenging leader is perhaps the one who is intellectually proud, too self-assured, and displays narcissistic traits. After all, constructive criticism is most welcomed by those who desire to grow.

 

How can criticism become acceptable and appropriate? Begin with self-criticism. I don’t mean the toxic criticism that devalues or denigrates, but the healthy criticism which praises the right and confronts the wrong, that distinguishes between adequate and inadequate preparation and response. Finding ways to make clear the connections between such criticism with your own growth and competence while learning from the examples of others will go a long way in both saving lives, saving face, and growing people.

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