Leading Change: How Great Leaders Deal with Criticism


We live in times of change. Shifting powers between West and East, technological evolutions, emerging countries and changing economic landscapes, financial systems that are under severe pressure, new innovative companies that change market places. As I described in an earlier post these times demand from leaders to be able to deal with exponential change. Also interesting to read is John Kotter’s recent article in Forbes “Can you handle an exponential rate of change?” . As part of my work I am especially interested in observing how leaders nowadays behave, communicate, make decisions, inspire and motivate others under these circumstances. A variety of successful and less successful behaviors can be witnessed. Several qualities distinguish the ‘great leaders’ from the ‘not so great leaders’, but there is one specific quality that is often overlooked or underestimated, and that is how great leaders deal with criticism.

I was triggered to write this piece by a press conference I saw on TV the other day. The journalists were asking difficult questions and the more they were hoping to get clear answers the more they got excuses and finger pointing at others. The more the journalists pushed for real answers, the more emotional the ‘leader’ got. The whole setting was turning into an open battle instead of an enlightening discussion. It ended in a shameful retreat of the ‘leader’. Somehow he had not been able to control his ego and his emotions. He had turned this all into a big ‘Me, Myself and I’ show, believing he was right and they were wrong, convinced that ‘he did his best and could not help the consequences, but these vultures still dared to attack him’. It was a huge disaster. Personally for him: the press was merciless in their reporting on his leadership. And even worse: nobody had any clarity on causes or any prospect on solutions. His impact on improving the situation was absolutely zero. On the contrary, the situation deteriorated because of his behavior.

Today’s leaders are dealing with an exponential change rate, and with information and communication channels that are easier accessible, faster and more widespread than ever before. Leaders are exposed to external influences and pressures that are less predictable and more quickly come and go. Leading change requires leaders to cope with this higher level of complexity. It also means that they, as part of their job, will almost inevitably face criticism in many occasions. Great leaders are aware of this and deal with criticism constructively. They see it as a normal part of their role and they approach it with an open mind. They have a fundamental and positive impact on the change, precisely because they deal with criticism effectively.

Look around you and you see numerous examples of leaders dealing with criticism. Maybe yourself are facing criticism. Observe closely how great leaders show some specific leadership traits when dealing with criticism. I made a list of 6 specific traits that stick out:

  • Don’t take it personally

Great leaders do take the situation seriously, however! They do feel they are part of the situation. They fully acknowledge their responsibility to create / facilitate / encourage / initiate solutions. But they do not let their ego come into play. They control emotions like ‘feelings of being attacked’, ‘feelings of not being treated fairly’, or ‘being hunted’. They also control these kinds of emotions even when they know it is the intention of the other party to attack them. They understand it is part of a leader’s role to face these situations and to show leadership.

  • Use criticism as fuel for improvement

When leading change it is normal to encounter resistance. It proofs that change is taking place. Criticism is just one of the ways in which resistance expresses itself. That doesn’t make it pleasant, but it is ‘normal’ in situations of change. Great leaders see criticism as an opportunity. They embrace it and use it to engage people, to create awareness for change, to facilitate dialogue. They use it as fuel for change. Not in a manipulative way, but with an open mind and a willingness to change views and perspectives.

  • Make complexity understandable to others

As described above leaders have to deal with an exponential rate of change and are confronted with a higher level of complexity. More and more resistance and criticism is related to misunderstandings and misinterpretations caused by this complexity. Great leaders are aware of this and put extra energy and focus on communicating and explaining the complexity to those who are affected by it. They don’t make the mistake of pretending as if there is no complexity, as if things are seemingly simple. They don’t deliberately communicate about the reality in simple generalizations and in black and white terms. Nor do they use the complexity as justification for their actions. As if they are the only ones that truly understand what needs to be done. As if the critics do not understand it and are ignorant and wrong. Great leaders don’t want to make it look simple when it is not, but they don’t want to hide themselves behind the argument of complexity either. They don’t pretend they know the full scope of the complexity and all its consequences, when they do not. Instead they focus on explaining openly and honestly what they believe is the essence of the complexity and its potential consequences, what they believe should be done to create change, and why this is important. They invite the critics to exchange perceptions, experience, knowledge and ideas together, and to create a shared view on the complexity and on what to do to overcome its challenges.

  • Communicate clear values

Great leaders are persistent when it comes to their values. They see values as one of the fundamentals on which successful change is built. They pay special attention to communicating values, even when they deal with criticism. They don’t try to counter criticism by losing themselves in technical arguments and details, by showing their knowledge and expertise. Instead they explain the values on which they based their decisions and actions, and the importance of these values. By doing this they align people around these values and build a case for their decisions, especially when these decisions have unpleasant consequences.

  • Admit your mistakes

Great leaders are not too proud to admit mistakes. When the criticism is valid they are willing to adjust their decisions and actions. They show courage and are willing to take a risk while leading complex change, even when it turns out to be a wrong decision. In that case they explain why they did it and what they (as well as the critics) learned from it. But they never base their actions and decisions on a fear of failure.

  • Engage critics and keep them informed

Great leaders engage their critics actively in the change process. They challenge them to come up with ideas and alternative scenarios. They don’t necessarily change their decisions and actions based on the criticism, but they invite the critics to ‘step on the train’ and to add value. In case it is not possible to actively engage critics in the change process they pro-actively keep them informed on the progress and the results, and invite them to give feedback.

“Great leaders don’t push away critics, they pull them aboard.”

Please leave your comments. Do you have specific examples of great leaders dealing with criticism? Or maybe you want to add points to the list? You are invited to share your thoughts below!

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Photo: ell brown/Flickr (Creative Commons)


As international business consultant, change leader, alignment facilitator and executive coach Aad supports multinational companies, their executives and leadership teams in increasing their business success. He works with his clients on leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. Find out more about Aad and his services.

3 Comments on “Leading Change: How Great Leaders Deal with Criticism

  1. Pingback: “That’s interesting…” | Now Leaders

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