In his draft of an excellent, soon-to-be-released book on leadership, Pat Sullivan, a long-time and hugely successful university coach and administrator, raised a very interesting point regarding handling critics and their criticism.
He referred to Dr. Martin Luther King’s great insight into this topic at the beginning of his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in response to eight white clergymen who criticized his involvement in the Birmingham Campaign:
“Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk…I would have no time for constructive work.”
A marvelous insight. And, as leaders and influencers, we will have critics.
Should we answer them? Like most things, I think it depends. We certainly cannot respond every time or we would indeed fall into the trap pointed out by Dr. King. At the same time, never responding would be counterproductive, as well. Utilizing discernment is important.
The following three reasons would seem to indicate the proper time to respond:
- The critic has a point and the criticism is valid (it takes humility to recognize this).
- Even if the critic is wrong and the criticism not valid, it might be a question that many others have. So, answering in terms of clarification could be very important.
- Answering the critic and criticism — valid or not — is an opportunity to teach others how a leader/influencer handles criticism. This can serve both as a teaching lesson to others as well as strengthen the credibility and influence of the leader.
Have I left anything out? How do you deal with the critics? Do you feel that leaders who don’t care at all about the critics are more effective than those who do? Or, are they less effective?
Of note: At the conclusion of the above quote by Dr. King, he wrote, “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”
Wow…What a leader!