Embracing Criticism As A Leader

CEO Coaching

For those in leadership roles, criticism comes with the territory. However, some deal with it better than others.

In this article, I will provide you with some useful strategies to cope with receiving criticism.

What’s the definition

But first, what is the definition of criticism?

“An opinion is given about someone or something especially negative or the activity of making such a judgement.”

For many leaders, the more responsibility they have (both in work and in their private lives), the more they open themselves up for criticism. This can be very difficult to handle and can negatively impact their decision making as they begin to fear and worry about people’s reactions.

Now, I understand that nobody likes criticism, but if we look at the work of renowned researcher, author and speaker Brene Brown, we can begin to see it differently.

Brown, who has spent decades interviewing many people around the areas of emotion and vulnerability, highlights two points:

It’s just somebody’s opinion.

We need to understand where that opinion is coming from and think about context. My three rules of context are: everybody’s busy, everybody’s got problems, and everybody’s trying to do their best. Once we understand that maybe that criticism is coming from a different place to where we want it to, we can digest it a little better.

It’s often a snap judgement.

We are in a time in age where we have to make lots of judgements about lots of different things and, to a certain degree, give lots of opinions on various things. The problem is that we don’t have enough time to truly step back and think about things and make an honest judgement.

That means that if we are being criticised, that judgement might be a snap decision. I’ve seen it repeatedly in meetings with leaders where we’re talking about delicate situations or delicate subjects where people walk out and make snap decisions or snap judgments. We need to let the emotional side calm down and think about it from a rational perspective.

Imagine if you were not worried about criticism at all. It would be so freeing. This is a mindset that the best athletes, CEOs, and business leaders have because they’re willing to make decisions and understand that they will learn by making mistakes.

As Theodore Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Brene Brown also makes a great point related to this:

“It is not about winning. It’s not about losing. It’s about showing up and being seen. If you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee, and that is you will get your arse kicked. If courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence. You can’t avoid it.”

Think about what you want to achieve and think about your critics.

Do they actually understand what you’re doing?

Are they in your arena?

Are they leading a company, or are they leading their teams out to play?

It’s essential to understand that sometimes we take criticism from people who have very little understanding of our situation. Take a read of the resource on developing leadership skills here.

Leaders Need To Embrace Criticism

However, to be a successful leader, you have to embrace criticism, despite the critic. Fear, self-doubt, anxiety and uncertainty have to be pushed aside. Being a leader means putting yourself out there and embracing your vulnerability. That can be hugely empowering because you’re authentic.

We have to understand is that we’re all running our own race. So everybody’s journey is different; everybody’s peaks and troughs will be different as well. You can’t compare yourself to others.

It’s also important to stay connected. Sometimes our response to receiving criticism is to think, “I don’t care about your opinion.”

When we think like that, we become disconnected. A leader who doesn’t care about what people think isn’t going to be a leader for very long. But what you have to do is you have to understand that it’s not about not caring. It’s just a case of not worrying, and there’s a slight difference between the two. I think that goes back to making sure that you listen to the criticism from the people that are in the arena with you.

Another significant point is that we need to be able to talk about our values and clearly demonstrate them to the people around us and ourselves. I had a great conversation with a leader regarding this. He would attend workshops and spend hours talking about the company’s leadership values, which is great. But for him, the game-changer was when people started to put those values into action, which completely changed and enhanced that company’s culture.

The last point to add is that we need that one person that’s going to help us, that’s going to pick us up, that’s going, to be honest with us and say, “Hey, look, you had a rough time, but at least you tried. Now go back out there and try again.”


However, one thing is clear: the higher up you go as a leader, the less feedback you get. If we think about it from a professional sports Standpoint, say, for example, in the FIFA Euro competition – I play a game, I step off the pitch, I’ll quickly have lots of feedback coming in. And then within hours, I’ll have all my stats. I’ll be able to see where I went wrong and what I can improve. In the business world, it’s rather different. This led to me creating a peak performance test that you can take to see where you’re at on all the different performance areas that can enhance leadership, health, well-being and overall performance.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and I hope you’ve found some useful tips to help you embrace criticism and develop as a leader.

Progress over perfection.


Director and Founder