Taking criticism like a leader

During my short stint as vice president of advancement at a Christian college (one of those ego over good sense moments for me) I was brought up short at how fast people were to put the worst spin on my decisions and actions. After listening to me whine for several minutes about the mean-spirited comments directed my way over the past week, the president with whom I worked reminded me that “you don’t go into administration for appreciation.”

group_of_protesters_9442This wasn’t what I wanted to hear in that moment, but it was advice I needed and to which I’ve return often. Recently I shared that president’s wise words with students  enrolled in Messiah College’s Master of Higher Education program. I did so not to scare them off from careers in college administration, but to encourage them to think about how they’ll handle the inevitable.

Criticism (often unfounded and uninformed) is part and parcel of an administrator’s (or any other leader’s) lot in life. As Sherry Surratt, CEO of MOPS International , writes in Just Lead!

By our sheer willingness to step up and lead, we’ve positioned ourselves in the center of the bull’s-eye or the center of the arena. . . . It’s only a matter of time before people start firing.


When asked how they handle criticism, my students responded with wisdom well above their pay grades. Together, their contributions to the week’s discussion create a 4-point formula for making the critique of others work for and not against us.

  • Keep your eye on the “why” of what you’re doing. When faced with criticism, take a hard look at your motives. Is what you’re doing about you or the cause? If the latter, push on.
  • Consider the source of the criticism. Does the critic know of what s/he speaks? Is the critic someone you respect? Think Proverbs 15:31.
  • Know your own truth. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
  • Focus on the positive. Keep a file of affirming comments that come your way and pull them out when faced with unfounded criticism. These are what’s worth pondering in your heart.

Great advice from a great group of grad students. They’re already taking criticism like the leaders they will someday be.



  1. Dorothy Gish says:

    In administration, criticism is inevitable, but change or “doing the right thing” seem to draw especially vicious attacks.

    • So sad and too true, Dorothy. It’s unfortunate that fear of the inevitable holds may leaders back from doing what they know they should until it’s too late. The role of the board is to stand with the CEO and lend him/her their courage.

  2. Sherry Holland says:

    Excellent communication can help head off criticism. When you want to make a change – even a small one – talking about it ahead of time helps those affected to adjust.

    • I agree, Sherry, that communication is key. Unfortunately, we can talk until we’re blue in the face, but people tend to hear what they want to hear and it may not be what the leader actually said.

What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: