“Loving Critics”

In my last post I wrote about the idea of Listening Proactively, taking responsibility to hear what’s being said and the associated need to put self aside. Sometimes it becomes critical who we listen to.

One of my current “Core Books”, A Leaders Legacy, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner contains a chapter titled “We all need loving critics”. Their premise is that once placed in a leadership position it is difficult for a leader to find people who will give them honest, direct, and perhaps hard to hear feedback simply because that person wants that leader to succeed and not out of self-interest.

It is relatively easy to find people who will criticize you because they want to inflict damage, most likely in terms of inciting unrest among others in your organization, or by inducing self-doubt in you. They may be motivated by self interests, but will, of course, serve it up masked by expressed concern in what’s best for the organization, or what’s right and good, or by prefacing the remark with  “I don’t mean to be negative, but….”.

“Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers”

John W. Gardner, 1912-2002

It’s also possible to find those who out of self interest or fear of loss will express only reassurance and continued praise and will defend that leader even when it is most obvious he is making a big mistake, or doing something that will do others damage.

Neither of these can be considered, “loving critics”, but when you, as a leader, can find the co-worker, associate, or peer, who out of no self-interest will look you in the eye and say to you, “that is not wise”, or “that will harm what is best for us all”, you have attained a true gift and asset.

If asked to number our critics, I think any of us who have lead others will have no trouble developing a list of names. Truth is we cannot accomplish something of merit and value without attracting critics.

But asked to list loving critics, the people who you know will not harm you, nor will they blindly follow you when they know you are going awry may be more difficult, and I would suspect contain far fewer names.

I have been blessed with at least 3 who come to mind quickly when I think of loving critics. I often ponder a time when one of them came to me after a long project review during a time of difficult economic turmoil in our organization. There were threats of project reductions resulting in layoffs.

I was being over cautious, meticulous in reviewing tasks, time, and money. I was concerned for the future of the people, and wanted everything “buttoned up” – or so I told myself.

After about the fourth stressful project review someone I trusted, cared about, and knew “had my back” came into my office. Let’s call her Susan. Here’s how I remember the discourse.

Susan: “Who was that masked man?”.

Me: “Huh? What are you talking about?”

Susan, (without much mercy): “You are intimidating, browbeating, and even scaring some of these very fine Project Mangers.”

Me: “Susan, you need to understand, I want to make sure this organization is valued, this is all for their benefit, we can demonstrate our organization is the best and shouldn’t be messed with in any reorg, or workforce reduction if that happens.”

Susan: “Wrong, you’re scared too, just like all of us. You are not behaving like the person they’ve respected and trusted for 3 years, and you’ll loose it completely if you don’t change your approach. Trust them, be honest with them, they’ll do the right things.”

Then she left my office.

This to me is a poignant example of a loving critic. Can you name your own?

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; …

Proverbs 27:6


  1. Betsy says:

    I had an experience in nursing school with a loving critic. I was terrified to be working on an intensive Cardiac Care unit, and it was affecting the job I was supposed to be doing. My professor pulled me aside at clinical one day and told me in no uncertain terms that I was letting self-doubt and fear ruin my patients’ overall experience in the hospital. She told me it was selfish of me, and said it was time to get out of my own head and let go of my insecurity, for the patients’ sake. It was hard to hear, but she was right. That conversation was a turning point; I ended up enjoying that rotation, and learned a tremendous amount from the entire experience. Over time, that professor came to be my mentor and one of the most influential teachers I’ve had. (Remembering this almost makes me miss school a little…)

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