3 Ways a Strong Leader Handles Criticism

We can’t control what another person says, but we can control our response.

Excerpted From
I Am a Leader
By Angie Ward

At some point (probably many!) on your journey as a leader, you will be criticized: either for your work or for who you are as a person; either publicly, privately or when you are not present. No matter the reason or the source, criticism cuts deep because each of us has a fundamental desire to be loved, accepted and respected just as we are.

Given that criticism is inevitable, we must learn how to handle it. “The key player is not the giver, but the receiver,” note Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. We can’t control another person or their words, but we can control our own actions and reactions.

In most instances, the best initial response is to take a deep breath and a step back. Let your first emotions subside, then prayerfully consider these three factors:

1. The Source

Who uttered the criticism, and what is their relationship to you? Was it a stranger? A distant acquaintance? A supervisor? A colleague? A close friend? What might be their motivation? Was it intended to be helpful or to tear down? As best you can, try to understand the person’s feelings and perspective. (The best way to do this is to actually ask, if possible, rather than ascribe motive.)

2. The Truth

What was said? No, really: what was actually communicated? Note that this is different from what you heard or felt—although you need to be honest about those, as well. Stone and Heen note that criticism can set off emotional responses based on one of three triggers: Truth Triggers (the content of the criticism), Relationship Triggers (the relationship between giver and receiver), and Identity Triggers (how it makes us feel about ourselves). Take some time to identify what triggers might be at play in your situation, and recognize the human tendency to downplay our weaknesses and overemphasize our strengths.

Next, do your best—perhaps with the help of an objective third party—to identify reality in relationship to these triggers. Is there any truth to the criticism? What is the reality of your relationship with the criticizer? And most importantly, what is the reality of your identity as a child of God and your calling as a follower of Christ? American pastor and author Raymond Edman exhorted, “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.” As king Mufasa told his young son Simba, “Remember who you are.” And remember that your life and leadership are to be lived not for the masses but before a true audience of one.

3. Your Response

Once you have reflected on the source and the truth of a particular criticism, you can determine the appropriate response. Perhaps the words stung but they were uttered by a faithful friend (Proverbs 27:6); if so, the proper response might be to thank that person. Maybe the criticism was blatantly untrue, and you need to decide whether to ignore or confront it. Perhaps you realize there are larger dynamics at play, such as organizational power structures or perceived personal threats. In those types of situations, you must consider when, where, and how to wisely communicate truth and love. Or perhaps you recognize that your initial reaction was rooted in your own fears and insecurities, and that you need to work on your own emotional and spiritual health.

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By focusing on our relationship with God and our own reactions, we can take much of the negative power—if not the initial sting—out of criticism.

Doubt

Doubt—defined as lack of confidence—sometimes develops in response to external criticism, but it can also spring up from within. It is not unusual for women leaders to experience feelings of uncertainty, insignificance, and lack of qualification regarding their ministry. After all, Satan will do anything he can to thwart anyone on mission for Christ.

As with criticism, the bigger concern is not whether we will have doubts, but what we will do with them. There are two possible responses: fear or faith. We can shrink back in fear, letting doubt keep us from obeying God’s calling. But with the Lord as the stronghold of our lives, we have nothing—and no one—to fear (Psalm 27:1).

The other option is to proceed in faith, which does not require certainty. In fact, certainty can be a hindrance to faith. As Hebrews 11:1 reminds us, faith is assurance about what we do not see. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but courage. And our courage is fortified by clinging closely to Christ. “Unsure of ourselves, we are sure of God,” reminds Os Guinness. Listen for God’s voice over the myriad of others that clamor for our attention. Stay rooted in the one who has overcome the world and whose strength is made perfect in our weakness.

“My ability to reach my potential is limited by my self-doubt and fear,” acknowledged Jennifer, an alcohol-and-addictions counselor and licensed minister. “I have a big passion, big desire, and big dream that I play over and over again in my mind’s eye. It’s all put together, launched, successful, and most of all, for him.

“Yet, yet . . . the Accuser attempts to remind me of who I was and that I will not measure up by God’s standards,” she continued. “But then the Holy Spirit reminds me that I am his standard, his masterpiece, created in his image. I am able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am there, sitting on my bike, putting my helmet on, ready to ride this out. I just need to hit the throttle.”

Waiting and Not Hearing

Sometimes, doubts rise to the surface because it seems that God has fallen silent. You ask God for clear direction. You’re eager to take next steps, or maybe you’re desperate for a word of reassurance. You strain to hear his voice. But: nothing. You keep asking, waiting, listening—a few more days, weeks, months, perhaps even years or decades. As Beth Booram writes, “The ache of want we want is so strong and insistent we can begin to feel desperate for its fulfillment.”

Since the day I heard God’s call at the sports desk, I had faithfully served him in some type of youth ministry. One night almost fifteen years later, I stood on the concourse of a packed sports arena, taking in the energy of thousands of teens lifting their voices in worship at a major youth conference. Suddenly, the music and lights seemed to fade out, and in that pulsing arena I once again heard that still, small, yet infinitely clear voice: “This isn’t you anymore.”

“What?” my spirit replied.

“This isn’t you anymore,” the voice repeated. “You’ve faithfully served in youth ministry for many years. But I am calling you out of youth ministry and into something new.”

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Because I immediately recognized the voice of the Lord, I felt no anxiety about this instruction. I simply responded, “Okay, great. What’s next?”

And then the voice was gone. It would be years before I received a clear answer; years during which I begged God to show me what was next, to please answer my simple, earnest question. I began to doubt his goodness and faithfulness, my ability to hear his voice, and whether I would ever receive another clear calling. (And my season in this “waitland” lasted only three years. I have no idea how Moses hung in there for forty.)

If we experience what feels like divine silence, there are two truths to which we must cling.

First, God’s ways are higher than our ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” the Lord declares in Isaiah 55:8. Peter reminds us, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). God reminded Job that no human will ever fully comprehend the one who laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38–39). And Paul confirms rhetorically, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

In other words, perceived silence does not mean that God is absent or not working. God is always at work behind the scenes, preparing the way for what he has next for you. Perhaps your next assignment is not ready or doesn’t even exist at the moment.

Or perhaps you are not ready. Which brings us to the second truth: God is more interested in our growth than our gifts. “The process of being reoriented is as important as the planned outcome,” writes Ken Costa. “Our cry is, ‘How long?’ but God’s cry is, ‘You can trust me.’” While we ask how we can serve him, God says, “I want you.”

Several years ago, my husband practiced an extended fast. As part of this spiritual and physical discipline, he went on a prayer walk any time he felt hungry. (Yes, he walked and prayed a lot.) During one of these walks, he prayed for God to speak to him. He listened expectantly, but as he rounded the final bend and approached our driveway, he still had not heard anything. Just as he felt himself getting a bit annoyed, God broke into his thoughts with what felt like a winking reminder: David, it’s good that you are listening, but that doesn’t obligate me to speak. Point taken.

God does not fit himself into our schedules. The proper response to silence is faithfulness: to God, to what we already know to be true, and to our daily responsibilities and disciplines as we wait and trust in his faithfulness. He is present, he is at work, and “he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), even when it seems that he is silent.

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Taken from I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Their Calling by Angie Ward. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.