Criticism: The Leader's Friend

I began to learn to grow at the hands of my critics.
— Gordon MacDonald

I was nineteen when the president of my college called me to his office. Dr. Crichton (pronounced cry'-ton) was small in stature, but possessed an intellect of titan proportions.  He said,

"Tommy, I will be out of town next weekend. Will you teach my Sunday school class for me?"

What an honor! I jumped at the opportunity. I prepared for that class as if it were a final exam. On the big day I was ready. I gave it my best. When the class was over I was feeling pretty good about my efforts. Sure, I wasn't Dr. Crichton, but in my opinion the lesson was a success.

Perhaps I congratulated myself too quickly. No sooner did I walk out of the class than a white-haired grandmother approached me. In a slightly pitched voice with a slightly condescending overtone she asked, 

"Would you like a little constructive criticism?"

I looked her in the eye and thought, "Actually, ma' am, I was hoping for a pat on the back." But I was cornered. There was no polite way out. Picking up my fork, I sat down for a nice slice of humble pie and said, "Sure."

To be honest, I don't recall her lecture.  At the time, I didn't regard it at as important.  Looking back, I learned a great lesson: Criticism is a friend.

The Benefits of Criticism

Many people don't benefit from criticism because they view it as an unwelcome enemy. That is understandable. Critics generally don't arrive with similes on their faces. Scowls? Yes. Raised voices of frustration? Yes. Harsh whispers in tight moments of interlude? Yes. But criticism, a "friend" to help me? NO WAY!

Criticism often lands like a slap on the face. It hits hard and hurts my gentle pride. But when I listen to it--really listen to it--criticism helps! Here's what God says:

Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.
— Proverbs 19:20 NIV

I grow when I welcome criticism. God turns the critics words into leadership muscle. He uses it to smooth out the wrinkles in my character, to push me out of the rut of complacency and to open my eyes to blind spots. Let's look closer:

1.  Criticism helps me separate what I do from who I am.

Bill Russell, the Boston Celtic superstar -- and considered by many the twentieth century's "greatest winner," said:

Basketball is what I do, it’s not who I am.

Christian leaders get this! Our work is important, but ultimately our work does not define us. God does.

The Christian message is that God accepts me because of what Jesus has done for me, not because of what I have done for him. When my "okayness" comes from being rightly related to God, then secure in his approval I no longer have to live for the approval of others. I don't have to be a genius. I don't have to have all the answers. In fact, knowing that I am complete only in Christ, I can admit that I need what others bring to the table.

Henri Nouwen speaks to the heart of the issue in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son:

At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?" Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. . . . Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.

When Christian leaders remember their true identity, that God loves and accepts them in Christ, and rest in that; it makes it easier to receive the criticism that inevitably comes their way.

2.  Criticism improves my work

In 1932, the American economy was in a tale-spin. "The New York Stock Exchange had lost nearly 90 percent of its value. Thirteen million people were out of work, and an estimated 34 million Americans had no income whatsoever." American prospects were bleak.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just won the Democratic nomination for president and was preparing to deliver his acceptance speech. In his book, The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter comments:

[Long-time political ally] Louis Howe was on a mission to "save" the acceptance speech, which, like all Roosevelt speeches, was a mishmash. Ray Moley had written a draft that was then cut and substantially rewritten in Albany by Rosenman, who had stayed up until dawn eating hot dogs and working on the speech. Roosevelt himself had tried a few drafts of an eloquent peroration amid all the phone calls to Chicago, but when the candidate finished one and read it aloud, the group around him agreed unanimously that it was terrible and he sadly tore it up.

It is a good thing Roosevelt's draft landed in the trash can. The line that reverberates through history - "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people" - came from FDR's voice, but not from his pen. That clever piece of rhetoric, which sparked hope in millions, was the work of Rosenman. Roosevelt listened to his critics. Our nation benefited.

Michelangelo is credited with saying, "I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have." All the greats see room for improvement. Criticism is part of every leaders "continuing education."

3.  Criticism reveals my blind spots

It is a humbling experience to have someone point out a piece of broccoli stuck between my teeth, but better to have the problem revealed -- and corrected -- than to look the fool. Criticism helps reveal my blind spots: habits, attitudes, and patterns that may be detrimental to my life and work as a leader for God.

Recently, I sat down with a friend who had several strong words of critique regarding my leadership. Looking back on that meeting, it was one of the most beneficial times of this New Year. I can isolate three specific issues that I am thinking about that I would have missed except for "enduring" that uncomfortable time.

Five Ways To Make Criticism Your Friend

If you want to make the most of the critics barrage, take these steps:

1.  Welcome criticism!

Be known as the person who welcomes constructive criticism. In his book, 9 Things You Simply Must Do, Henry Cloud relates this story:

Once when I was leading a retreat leaders, an executive name Adam had just outlined his current situation to the others in the group. Then one of them asked, “would you like some feedback?“ We could all tell from his expression that what he had to say would not be complementary.… Adam‘s response was outstanding: “Of course, give me a gift.“ Adam saw that getting corrected we’re having his fault pointed out by someone wise with the gift indeed.

At that moment Adam was the poster boy for Proverbs 19:20: "Listen to advice and accept instruction and in the end you will be wise." Leaders welcome criticism.  Because they don't have all the answers and because they want to get better, leaders say, "Yes, please speak into my life."

2.  Look for the kernel of truth in every constructive criticism.

Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, had a great practice for handling criticism:

No matter how unfair the criticism might seem to be, he would always take it into his prayer closet and in effect spread it before the Lord. The he would say, "Lord, please show me the kernel of truth hidden in this criticism." The truth may certainly be small on occasion, but it is always worth finding and thinking through.

Leaders grow when they look for the kernel of truth. As Gordon MacDonald notes, "I began to learn to grow at the hands of my critics. I have seldom ever head a criticism about myself that didn't indeed contain a kernel of useful truth. Some of the kernels have been on the small side, but they were there."

3.  Identify your trusted advisers

Smart leaders find critics. Military advisors don't want a room full of "yes men." Presidents trust their cabinets to push back on ideas. Great players trust their coaches to say the hard words that will improve their game.

Looking into the Bible, we find that King David had advisors that cared enough for him and for the kingdom to speak into his life:

Jonathan, David's uncle, was a counselor, being a man of understanding and a scribe. He and Jehiel the son of Hachmoni attended the king's sons. Ahithophel was the king's counselor, and Hushai the Archite was the king's friend.

God commends this. Who are two people you can trust to "shoot-you-straight"?

4.  Give your critics permission to speak into your life

This may look like a repeat of my first point. It is not. Despite your best efforts, most people will not speak up. You are "the boss" or a good friend. People won't want to offend you. They won't want to hurt your feelings. So you must repeatedly tell folks,

You can say anything to me. Tell me what I need to hear. "Please, help save me from myself."

5.  Say "Thanks" and take action

After winning the White House, Franklin Roosevelt recognized two people whose roles were paramount in his election. One was Louis Howe, his long-time friend and the man who would not let FDR give the speech he wanted to give. When we tell people that we appreciate their hard words it builds trust, and creates an atmosphere for greater growth down the road.

Pushing Back On Our Critics   

Not all criticism is welcome. Sometimes our critics are not out to "correct us," but to harm us. This was the case with Paul. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed his naysayers:

For they say, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account." Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. . . . Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. 2 Corinthians 10:10-13 ESV

What does a leader do when criticism is malicious and not intended to help?

Here are three observations:

  1. It's okay to push back. It is not "unchristian" to disagree with critics.
  2. I must defend myself when "the cause" is at stake. Paul pushed back because if he did not, his adversaries would bring ruin to the church. His reputation and the church's health were tied together. He had to speak up and set the record straight for the sake of the cause.
  3. Make sure the facts lead the feelings. Read 2 Corinthians 10-11. Paul became very emotional at points, but his emotions trailed the facts. He gave a fact-based discourse with emotion, not an emotion-based discourse peppered with sentiment.

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is when to "push back" on our critics. For this, we need wisdom, wise counsel, and the help of the Holy Spirit of God.

When we want to play the critic:

When we discern that others are not where they should be and we are ready to provide a little constructive criticism ourselves, it is wise to remember the words of Oswald Chambers before we speak:

God never gives us discernment so that we may criticize, but that we may intercede.

There is a time for intercession and there is a time for face-to-face confrontation. It takes wisdom to discern the difference. Either way, don't let criticism get the best of you. Make the best of it. Welcome criticism. It is your friend!



  • "Basketball is what I do . . ." from Bill Russell, Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner, page 14.
  • "At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong?" from Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, page 42.
  • "The New York Stock Exchange had lost nearly 90 percent . . ." from Alex Kingsbury, "Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" Sealed the Deal in 1932.", January 17, 2008. Accessed October 4, 2011.
  • "[Long-time political ally] Louis Howe was on a mission . . ." from Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment, page 119.
  • "Of course, give me a gift" from Henry Cloud, 9 Things You Simply Must Do. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2004. Page 204.
  • "No matter how unfair the criticism might seem to be . . ." from Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World, page 126-127.
  • "I began to learn to grow at the hands of my critics." from MacDonald, page 127.
  • "Jonathan, David's uncle, was a counselor . . ." from 1 Chronicles 27:32-33.