Ironically, I heard a fable not long ago that got me thinking as to how we lead in times of criticism. You may feel the same, or interpret it differently, but here is the story as I remember it:
An older man and a boy must escort a donkey and their materials to a customer in the city by the end of the day. When they begin their journey, the older man walks next to the donkey which is carrying the materials and boy. As they leave the town, many people begin to publicly criticize the pair – becoming more disgusted that the young man would ride the donkey and make the old man walk. The pair is embarrassed and decides to stop and switch places. As they continue their journey, people continue to comment how ridiculous this man is for making such a young boy walk while he rides the donkey. Continuing to listen to their critics, the pair decides to both ride the donkey. Surprisingly to them, people continue to yell at them on their journey – how dare they put that poor animal through all that stress when they are healthy and capable to ride. Delayed significantly at this point, the pair decide to get off the donkey and walk next to the animal on the rest of their journey. As they enter the next town, once again they are met with criticism – look at these two, walking all this way, and wasting a perfectly good resource like the donkey to ride. The old man and the boy find they are once again embarrassed by their decision and choose to carry the donkey. Unfortunately, the pair never reach the city in time and must turn around and return home without delivering their materials.
OVERCOMING CRITICISM – I was pondering a similar topic earlier today. A leadership role in a local non-profit will always produce the opportunity to experience a few nay-sayers. In my opinion, leaders know when to listen to their critics and when to ignore them. Previous experiences have shaped my approach to dealing with such critics. Most times, criticism can be due to a personality issue, lack of vision, doubt, negativity, poor communication, etc. I always approach these issues the same way I’d approach a potential client.
I should add that I was never a good “salesman”. A salesman figures out a way to provide you with something you don’t need or something you didn’t know you wanted. Now sure, I tried this for a bit…and I sucked. Then I approached sales as an “educator”.
An educator reasons with the client to explain why or why not a certain good or service is a practical inclusion to the shared vision of the final product between the agent and client. An educator will educate the client while leading them to make their own, informed decision toward the end vision. Without the shared vision, you don’t even have a starting point. Without listening, reasoning, and conversing, you can’t make appropriate decisions to include in the shared vision – and this endless, inefficient, non-decision-making cycle takes us back to the beginning.
Addressing the critics usually requires the leader to be patient and educate the critics. To use the donkey example, maybe the man and boy shouldn’t have been silent. Maybe they should’ve announced or informed the people why they were doing what they were doing – their strategy. Or maybe they should’ve hung a big sign saying, “HEY PEOPLE, I KNOW THIS MIGHT LOOK WEIRD, BUT WE’VE GOT PLACES TO BE!”. Patients, effective communication, sharing the vision/strategy have been my best tools for handling critics. Approaching critics (or clients) with the “educator” mind-set has proven rewarding results. However, part of being an educator is admitting there’s more to learn.
Most critics I’ve ever dealt with are those who don’t – or don’t care to – share the vision, learn new methods, discuss strategies, etc. Somehow, from their own background, they’ve predetermined what works and what doesn’t. They’ll approach important decision-making without taking the time to do their research, learn something new, explore new options, etc. True leaders don’t do this. True educators don’t do this. Leaders and educators understand a shared concept – life’s hardest lesson plans can be unfolded to those who refuse to learn.
That is a good parable of life….you will never please everyone! I believe the best best way to learn from a story like this is to focus on what you can control: you. Self-awareness, meaning knowing what you want and can do, is an essential part of any successful person. Good leaders know this as do good team members. John’s comments that critics tend to have a predetermined view of what works is an excellent example of the lack of self-awareness from which many suffer. In organizational leadership their are few black and white answers so you will always have to work to be heard and overcome ignorance. The best way to reach those who are unaware is a teaching process. It also happens to help you double check your own accuracy! Learn how to teach people and you will learn how to lead!