If you are a leader, you will be criticized. If you are not being criticized, you are probably not a leader. The issue is not whether or not you will be the subject of criticism; the greater issue is how you should respond.
As a general rule, leaders should respond to criticism. I do my best to do so, or at that very least, ask someone in my organization to respond. Critics, more often than not, deserve a response. They need to hear from the leader who can give them his or her perspective. They need to hear from a leader in the event the response can be an opportunity for reconciliation.
But there are times when leaders should not respond to critics. These times are rare, and should be the subject of prayer and counsel. Nehemiah is a biblical character that is often used to define principles of leadership. Look at this passage from Nehemiah 6:2-4. See how Nehemiah, in this case, chose not to respond to a persistent critic.
“Sanballet and Geshem sent me a message: ‘Come let’s meet together in the valley.’ But they were planning to harm me. So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same proposal, and I gave them the same reply.” (HCSB)
Nehemiah offers us both biblical and practical principles about those rare occasions when you shouldn’t respond to critics.
- When you have already repeatedly responded. For some critics, a response is not sufficient. They will not stop until they have gotten their way. There comes a point where further communication becomes an exercise in futility. It’s time to move on and do “the great work.”
- When the critic intends harm. An occasional critic is not so much interested in communicating his or her issue as causing you harm. Their issue is not actually the issue. They want you hurt in some way. Further communication will only cause problems.
- When the critic will not reason. Many critics have very valid points. Whether we agree or disagree, we need to listen to their perspective. Other critics simply want to rant. There is rarely a good outcome when meeting with the very unreasonable and ranting critic.
- When the criticism becomes an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem attack takes place when a person attacks your character. The issue is peripheral, and is only used to assail you personally. There is often no need to deal with the critic because he or she really doesn’t care about the issue.
Criticism is painful for most leaders. It is for me. But most criticisms are good for leaders. We can learn from our critics, and we can grow as leaders. But there are a few times when we simply should not respond. In those cases, any response only exacerbates something that is already bad.
Sometimes we need to be like Nehemiah. Continue our work and ignore the critic.