We live in a culture that prides itself on viewing the action of criticizing the failures of its leaders not only as a right, but as a responsibility.
And while this is for the most part very valuable advice, it is easy to get caught up in critiquing others and overlook that failures are a marker of learning. Failure provides guidance for improvement. But this doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
CRITICISM COMES WITH THE JOB
Criticism is part of success. There are no high-level executives — or TV personalities, professional athletes or artists — that have been successful without a peanut gallery full of critics.
Criticism is, in fact, the dominant conversation in our culture.
But it doesn’t have to be. Critics only have the power you supply them with — if you feel ashamed of a failure, make excuses or find someone else to blame, critics will be quick to repeat that narrative — and will frequently enhance that story with their own observations and embellishment.
Consider, however, approaching your recent failure as something to celebrate: This failure means you’ve attempted something new; you’ve stepped “out of the box” and approached a problem in a different way. It is a sign of innovation. It is a symbol of grit and determination.
Failure and personal ego are inextricably intertwined, and so it is impractical to tell anyone not to take criticism personally. It is OK to take criticism personally. But it is not OK to make it personal.
What do I mean by this?
Criticism, by its very nature, puts us on the defensive, and so it is easy to want to give into impulses of self-defense and fire back. These are emotional responses. Actions are productive responses.
By assuming the criticism was given in order to help you improve, even if, and especially if, the intent was more malicious, you effectively take power from your criticizers and use it to fuel your professional development. Congratulations, you have taken the first step in changing the conversation.
NONE OF US ARE ABOVE REPROACH
One of the most beautiful (and most infuriating) aspects of the human condition is that we are fallible; everyone makes mistakes. However, criticism is a great tool for learning — if you allow it to be. Always place yourself in a good position to correct your behavior and improve your performance. Great leaders practice and present to others qualities of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-care.
While the first stage of changing the conversation of criticism is all about rendering disapproval into personal capital gain, it is equally important not to disregard criticism completely. Our knee-jerk reaction to criticism is to be defensive.
I didn’t do that. It’s not my fault. They just don’t know what they’re talking about.
However, the difference between a good leader and a great leader is patience and approach: Listen to what is being said. Even if the delivery is hurtful, is there any truth to the message?
Take a moment to reflect on all aspects of a situation, and never let pride or strong will prevent you from learning. By approaching failure as a learning opportunity, you inherently teach your followers to do the same.
A PRODUCTIVE NARRATIVE
Success is a story of perseverance. In fact, it is the “success-through-failure” stories that get told over and over again:
• Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and even after earning a spot in the NBA, he went on to miss more than 9,000 shots — 26 of which would have been the game-winning shot — and lost nearly 300 games in his professional career. But he sits today as the highest-paid athlete of all-time with a $1.7 billion brand through team contracts and endorsements and a laundry list of distinguished professional accolades.
• It took J.K. Rowling years to write Harry Potter — years filled with poverty, depression and unemployment. The manuscript was rejected by no less than a dozen publishers. Her infamous book series has now landed in children’s literature stardom with millions of copies sold, having been translated into 73 languages and has now accrued more than $20 billion throughout the franchise — effectively making her the first woman to become a billionaire author.
• Oprah Winfrey was deemed “unfit for television” early in her career. She disappointed as a street reporter, and while she had a proclivity for human interest stories, she had a problem staying emotionally unattached. Today, she is a social icon as one of the world’s leading and most famous interviewers and has changed the television industry. She’s captured nearly 30 million Twitter followers, 18 Emmy Awards, nurtured lasting relationships with some of the world’s most influential leaders, and has built a net worth of more than $3 billion.
While success takes many forms, it shares a common characteristic: to push through when it gets difficult and to stay focused despite any opposition.
Even if the journey is long and the obstacles are unknown, you do have complete control over the narrative of your success — and your actions provide the framing.
Thomas Edison could have focused on any one of his critics condemning his failed attempts at inventing a light bulb. Instead, he chose to look at his situation from a productive perspective, famously saying, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
For great leaders, failure is never a loss.
Dave Ferguson is “The Leaders’ Coach”, an internationally recognized executive leadership coach, speaker, facilitator, and author. Are you interested in having Dave speak to inspire and motivate your team? “ASK COACH DAVE” at 704-907-0171 or at Dave@AskCoachDave.com.