Once leaders have realised that there is nothing unnatural or necessarily damaging about criticism, and that in any case they are going to learn to live with it, the question is, what is the best and most creative way to handle it. Here are some basic ground rules.
l Don’t reject it out of hand.
A leader who finds it easier to ignore opposition and press on regardless, must always watch out that this approach does not lead to arrogance or foster an overbearing attitude. Arrogance and the deception to which it leads are so deadly that leaders should be thankful for any criticism no matter how unreasonable because at the very least, it is a protection against these major dangers.
l Don’t be discouraged by it.
Criticism can easily sap leader’s courage, especially when it comes from within their ranks or from people that they have come to depend on for support or whose good opinion they value. Leaders have to dig down to find a source of strength and courage within themselves to face the situation.That means finding our strength in Christ and the assurance of His presence. In the disaster at Ziklag when David’s own men were talking of stoning him we read; 1 Samuel 30 vs 6: “Now David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.”
l Don’t be demoralised by it.
Demoralisation is a step further down the track of discouragement. It happens when leaders, hemmed in by opposition and difficulty, are tampered to take an unethical or unprincipled course of action, because it offers a seeming opportunity to get off the hook. Or it can happen when the external pressure of criticism and opposition becomes too great and the leader’s fortitude, courage or will to resist suddenly snaps. Then we need what Paul prayed for in Ephesians 3 vs16: “… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man…”
l Don’t be ruled by it.
Sometimes leaders are tempted to yield to criticism and to alter plans or policies for the sake of peace and quiet. However, alterations arouse new opponents from among those who were constant with previous policy and are now upset with the changes. The leaders try a middle course to placate both sides, only to find that neither are happy with the compromise.What is more, the previously silent majority now becomes disenchanted because they see the leaders “playing to the gallery” and bending to whichever pressure group is most vocal. This is not by any means to say that the approach to criticism should be one of inflexible unyieldedness, but it is to point out that short term adjustments merely to placate criticism can lead us astray from legitimate long-term goals.
l Don’t personalise it.
This is probably the most important “don’t” of all and the hardest to abide by.
Leaders can err here in two ways:
l Firstly, they can take criticism of their policies or their plans as being personal criticism and, therefore, an attack on their integrity or character or capability.
l Secondly, they can react personally against the critic and reject the person, as well as the person’s view or opinions.
The attitude of leaders must always be, “if you can help us make a better decision we are open to your help and grateful for it.” Sometimes, it’s the wrong person, at the wrong time, with the wrong motive who says the right thing.
l Seek to discover the reason behind the criticism.
Many a times criticism or the way it is expressed does not represent the real problem, but is only a result or symptom of the real issue. Discovering the real reasons that lie back of a question or a criticism will often condition the response that is appropriate in the circumstance.
Reasons for a particular criticism may be:
l Fear of change or fear of the future. In this case, what is called for is re-assurance;
l Mistake, misunderstanding or lack of comprehension. This calls for information or explanation or enlightenment;
l Loss of heart in the face of difficulties or defying circumstances. There is need for the people affected to be encouraged and reassured;
l Perceived error or danger;
The criticism needs to be heeded and action taken to correct the fault or avoid the threat;
l A diversion, or a profitless dispute that will achieve nothing.
The criticism needs to be refuted otherwise it will dissipate people’s energies and obstruct progress;
l An expression of hurt or being wounded because of what the person has experienced from leaders, present or past.
In some cases leaders may need to acknowledge responsibility, seek forgiveness and bind up the wounds.
In other cases, there may be a need for healing although no blame attaches to the leaders, for example, a person who has been passed over for a position they desired may be hurt, even though the decision was the correct one;
l Wrong attitude or wrong spirit, for example, envy, jealousy, contention or divisiveness.
These need to be opposed. At the same time leaders must be wary of characterising criticism as being wrongly motivated when the reaction to it may be their own defensiveness, or pride or insecurity.
Facing personal attacks
What happens when criticism becomes a personal attack? Sometimes criticism of leaders can degenerate to personalities or even a form of character assassination, when it becomes clear that not the policies but the leaders as persons are the target of an attack. The important issues in such cases are as follows:
l Don’t give as good as you get.
When the spirit behind the criticism is wrong, it can only be overcome by responding in a contrary spirit.
a. If it is driven by contention —respond in peaceably.
b. If it is driven by malice — respond in love.
c. If it is driven by meanness —respond in generosity.
d. If it is driven by pride — respond in humility .
e. If it is driven by arrogance —respond in teachableness.
f. If it is driven by deception —respond in truth.
g. If it is driven by mistrust — respond in faith.
l Don’t allow your emotions to dictate your response so that you are seeking out of hurt or anger.
Similarly, don’t become resentful or bitter or fall into the sin of self pity, the “poor me” syndrome.Remember that there are probably others more vulnerable than you are to the effects of the attack, for example your spouse and family.
l Don’t become the personal focus of a division.
There should never be divisions over personalities.
l Don’t allow others to be attacked through you and don’t distance yourself from those to whom you owe loyalty when they are under attack.
Loyalty means “I am for you even if others are against you and I will defend you even at cost or risk to myself.”
As a leader, don’t be hemmed in by opposition and criticism as to a point of demoralisation.
l Bishop Colin Nyathi is a senior pastor and founder of Harvest House International Churches