Why great leaders know how to handle criticism

The people I’ve met who I considered to be leaders had one thing in common: they were so human.

And by human I mean: they weren’t saints nor some kind of larger than life heroes. They were great human beings.


Well mostly because they were at peace with the fact that ‘they were just human beings’ which meant that

  • a) they weren’t perfect
  • b) they would made mistakes
  • c) they knew that being humane / human was the true gift they had to give to this world.

Giants aren’t real
It took me a while before I understood what that really means. My view of leaders was largely distorted by fairy tales, myths, media, movies, history. Leaders were the larger than life people, the statues, the superheroes, the extremes.

A heart at peace
Today that view has changed dramatically. I’ve came to realize that a great leader knows what it means to have a heart that is at peace. If your heart is at peace it means you’re at peace with yourself. You can understand what happens to you, you can accept the fact that you make mistakes and you also know that you can decide to do something about most of these mistakes. These people know that they can decide whether their heart is at peace and whether they are at peace with themselves and with the world.

Feeling threatened
If I feel threatened it’s because I distrust other people. Most of the time that’s because my heart is at war with the world and with myself. It’s because I don’t want to feel threatened or scared and then I start to justify my feelings and my distorted and defensive view towards the outside world.

The power of observation without judgement
A great leader observes this within herself and tries to find the strength to step out of that, to observe and accept the wish that she wants to feel safe not as a shortcoming (I should be stronger, people should back off, …). A great leader refrains from judgement in such situations.

Why being ‘weak’ makes you stronger
Do they do so automatically? No they don’t. They know how hard it can be and they know there are times when they fail. Does that make them bad leaders? I remember one teacher I admired for his openness and kindness towards all pupils. And most of his students respected him a lot. So one day I asked him: “How do you do that? How come you are such a great person?” “I just try to be me.” “Don’t you ever fail?” I wondered. “Oh, a lot.” “So what do you do then?” “I try again?” After he said that I even respected him more than before. Why? Because he was much more like me now. He was not some kind of superhuman being, but an ordinary guy like me who did great things.

If you can’t make that connection, you can’t be a great leader.

It’s not just the fact that we all dress up in the same way which makes us feel connected. It’s the way in which we allow each other to be ourselves and to be human which makes a tribe strong.

Criticism is an invitation to connect
Leaders who don’t understand that often have a hard time taking criticism. They read criticism not as an invitation to reestablish a connection but as a threat to their position. These people believe that being a great leader is about getting on the pedestal and staying there while true leaders know that staying down to earth, that walking among the people you lead and showing that you are sharing their lives is what really counts.

This post appeared first as a comment on “Leading, but what if you have trouble with your self-confidence”, a post written by San.

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One thought on “Why great leaders know how to handle criticism

  1. Ben Young says:

    Criticism is the best invention for growth, how can you grow without critics?

    More often than not I am humbled by criticism, you took the time to think about something I did to that level, wow.

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