Leaders need critics. Huh? Who needs criticism? Nobody I know! It can be painful, hurtful, mean-spirited and inaccurate. Some critics are “armchair Monday morning quarterbacks” who believe that they could do a better job than the leader. Like the parent who thinks they know it all. What’s worse is that detractors often have never been “in the arena” themselves as leaders.
The reality is that some criticism is valid. Leaders aren’t infallible because people aren’t perfect. Even the best leaders make mistakes. How do leaders know whether criticism is intended to be helpful or harmful? Moreover, how do leaders handle criticism? There are four key principles for dealing with criticism. Understanding and applying these principles will help you respond effectively to your critics. Nehemiah serves as a biblical model for leaders in how to confront and counteract critics.
1. All leaders face criticism.
It comes with the territory. Nehemiah had no more than finished casting the vision to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls when Sanballat and Tobiah began criticizing him (2:10). Leaders can not and will not please everyone. If you want everybody to like you, you will be greatly disappointed as a leader. Whatever decision you make, some people will disagree. Leaders who try to please everyone end up pleasing no one, not even themselves. Effective leaders expect criticism and are seldom disappointed. They learn to develop “thick skin,” and try not to take it personally. Instead, they try to make the best possible decisions, and live with the consequences.
2. All criticism is based on the critic’s intentions.
There are two types of criticism—destructive and constructive. Effective leaders learn to consider the underlying intentions of their critics. Some criticism may be valid while other parts may be based more on the ulterior motives or unmet needs of critics.
The intent of destructive criticism is to hurt, humiliate and belittle the leader. The critic tries to “shame and blame” the leader in order to manipulate or control the situation. The approach is negative and intended to gain attention for the critic. Nehemiah’s critics were powerful politicians who benefited by keeping Jerusalem defenseless (2:10). Nehemiah’s vision threatened their power, so they began a campaign of criticism (4:8).
On the other hand, the intent of constructive criticism is to help the leader become aware of something that needs to be improved. The critic expresses a concern in a caring manner hoping to motivate the leader to make a positive change. The focus is on “clearing the air” while keeping the lines of communication open. Nehemiah faced criticism from his own workers when opponents threatened violence. Nehemiah developed a plan to defend the workers and continue construction (4:10-13). How you respond to this type of criticism will determine what people think of you. If you are humble and open to listening, people will see you have maturity and give you more leadership.
3. All critics use similar strategies.
Nehemiah faced a series of strategies that critics have used throughout history. His opponents tried mocking, ridiculing and insulting (2:2-3). They employed rumors and scare tactics (4:11). Later, they used dirty tricks and physical intimidation (6:2). Undaunted, they spread misinformation and false accusations (6:5). Eventually, they made a desperate attempt to discredit his integrity (6:10).
4. Effective leaders use similar counterstrategies.
Throughout these attacks, Nehemiah trusted in God (2:1); drew boundaries between right and wrong (2:1); prayed persistently (4:4); prepared a plan (4:13); used powerful words (4:14); focused on the mission (6:3-4); responded with facts (6:8); and exercised discernment (6:9). Furthermore, he didn’t retaliate, but allowed God to be the Judge (6:14).