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Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

March 4, 2014

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When you lead others, everyone is a critic.  It is next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.

This does not mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks vastly different when you are accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to the radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so-called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place on any given day.   In my line of work, I have encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent, they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real insight or understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you ever noticed that most talking heads haven’t ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.

Even worse are the journalists and media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as if they are qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  This simply proves that when you are not accountable, you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or with a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own ideological position.  Thinking before acting is arduous work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach, especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Vladmir Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the promising ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.

Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Holding your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  Also, remember that you are one of the few willing to step to the front and risk criticism in the first place.

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