There are at least two wonderful things I’ve learned from people who’ve been fired. The first is this: Your identity cannot be wrapped up in what you do, and secondly, you begin to see criticism differently. It’s this second learning that I want to explore.
Most of us are terribly fearful of criticism. I am. I hate it when someone has something negative to say about the way I… well, about the way I do anything. It hurts, quite frankly. Criticism surfaces all the negative thoughts and feelings I often think and carry about myself, even though I know many of them to be false. When we hear criticism we magnify it and frequently respond to criticism in all kinds of negative ways. Perhaps, however, we ought to begin to think about criticism in different ways. There is, I think, a way to understand and receive criticism wherein our critics become a blessing to us and a necessary component of becoming the leaders and Christians we are intended to be.
First, criticism doesn’t tell us we’re bad people, it tells us our work product could have been better. After my first year leading and planning a youth conference in Houston for several thousand teenagers, our team received some negative feedback. Some of the criticism was silly, but there were some pieces that were valid. These were the criticisms that hurt the most! My friend, Jason Noble, simply mentioned that the criticism wasn’t personal, the critics weren’t telling us the event was bad, but that one or two parts could have been better. That’s an important lesson. Everything we do could be done better. Is that news? Do any of us think that our work product is perfect, of course not. When our critics bring these missed opportunities to light, they are aiding us in producing a better product the next time around.
Second, criticism keeps us fresh. Because we made mistakes – big or small – last time, we are forced to generate fresh ideas and insights the next time. A consistent criticism of my sermons is that I talk too fast. OK, I get it. Therefore my wife, Rochelle, constantly reminds me to slow down. In fact, oftentimes during sermons and speaking engagements I will look at her and see her motioning downward with her hands reminding me to slow down. I find that when I can slow down, not only does my excellent delivery style become even better J, but also I’m able to connect on a personal level. An added benefit of slowing down is that often fresh, new insights come to mind and I ditch what I was going to say in favor of something better. This kind of “fresh-making” can happen because past criticism has been interpreted and appropriated.
Third, criticism keeps us Heaven-focused rather than Earth-bound. Critics remind us that earth is a fallen, broken place where mistakes happen. Think about this: If earth were populated only with people who praise you, would you be more or less desiring to stay here? And if earth were populated only with critics, wouldn’t you prefer to move on to your heavenly dwelling with the Lord. Crazy as it sounds, friends keep us earth-bound; critics tell us that we don’t want to stay around here for too terribly.
Fourth, you will always have critics. There’s simply no way to get around it. People are so different that there’s no way to please them all. As a communicator, I’ve heard it all. “You’re too conservative; you’re too liberal. You dress up to much; you need to dress more casual. Your talks are too short; your talks are too long.” Eventually, you have to learn which critics and criticisms to listen to and which to allow in one ear and out the other. As a leader, you have to get to a place where you tell yourself that God has placed you in a specific position for a specific time. This means you oftentimes have to make a call, own it and move forward, regardless of what the critics think. There is no uncriticizable decision or action. If you can’t deal with that, you don’t need to lead.
So, if you’re a leader facing criticism, take heart. There are a lot of us out there with you. In fact, to lead oftentimes mean taking legitimate criticism, as well as some that’s not so legit. At any rate, I encourage you to hold onto the vision God has given you and your organization. If you trust and follow God you will please Him. And after all, He’s the only critic that matters.