Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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5 Ways to Handle the Chronic Critic in your Church

Every church has ’em. The Chronic Critic…the person(s) who simply can’t be pleased. No matter what you do, they have something negative to say. You are not alone when you face chronic critics. Nehemiah, perhaps one of the greatest leaders of all times was on a mission from God. Yet he faced chronic critics. They could have derailed his God-given mission. They didn’t. And here’s what he did.

Complete this statement: The last time I was criticized by someone in my church I…

  • Reacted
  • Blew up
  • Screamed
  • Cussed
  • Stayed silent and drove my anger inward
  • Became defensive
  • Felt embarrased
  • Listened and learned from the critic
  • ???.

Criticism never feels good. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it’s not. Nehemiah’s criticism from Sanballat and Tobia was not warranted, yet Nehemiah wisely responded with the 5 P’s below. Nehemiah 4. 1-9 tells the story.

Neh. 4.1   When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,  2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble — burned as they are?”

3   Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building — if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”

4   Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.  5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

6   So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

7   But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.  8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.  9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. (NIV)

You’ll recall that God gave Nehemiah a burden to re-build the wall around Jerusalem, a noble task. He obeyed God’s prompting and got criticized for it. The five insights below from Nehemiah’s response to his chronic critics give us a good template to follow when we’re criticized. I call them the 5 P’s.

  • PREPARE FOR IT: if you want to make a difference for God, you will be criticized, even though what you’re doing is noble. We live  live in a fallen world and this world’s systems and values oppose the rule of God. If satan can use criticism to derail you, he will. The greater impact you have for God, the more you will be criticized, not less. If you try to please everybody, you may avoid criticism, but you’ll be miserable.
    • For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism. (Harrison’s Postulate)
  • PAUSE AND PRAY: Instead of reacting, retorting, getting defensive, showing the illogic of his critics, Nehemiah first turned to the Lord in prayer (v. 4). The criticism hurt, but he did not even the score. He asked the Lord to bring appropriate judgment. Prayer takes the sting out criticism and when we pause, it gives time for clear thinking to rule, rather than reactivity.
    • Matt. 5.44 … I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer… (Message)
  • PRAY AND PROCESS: Criticism often makes us feel bad and often we act irrationally or in an healthy way to it. When we get criticized we must, however, process that criticism by asking these kinds of questions. What is valid about it? What do I do with it? Do I ignore it? Do I confront the criticizer? Do I learn from it? We should not disregard all criticism.  We can learn much from our critics. Some critics can even become our best coaches.
    • Psa. 141:5 Let the godly strike me!  It will be a kindness! If they reprove me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it. (NLT)
      • Evaluate the merit of criticism in two ways.
        1.  In light of the spirit and attitude in which it was given. Did the critic criticize to help you or to hurt you?
        2. In light of the voices to whom your critic listens. Does the critic hang around with godly people, or simply run with a pack of other critics?
  • PROCEED WITH CARE: Although Nehemiah often prayed, he didn’t use prayer as an excuse to do nothing. He did something. He moved forward with the project to rebuild the wall. When the chronic critic criticizes you, don’t let it immobilize you. Do something tangible.
    • You may need to separate yourself from your constant critics and not listen to them any longer.
    • You may need to boldly tell your critic to stop criticizing.
    • You may need to listen and learn from your critic.
  • PROTECT YOUR VULNERABILITIES: In response to his critics, he posted guards at the wall’s most vulnerable places. Sometimes criticism reveals where were are weakest and most vulnerable. When such criticism reveals those weaknesses, we may need to take some of these extra steps to deal with those sensitive places.
    • Consult a good counselor.
    • Invite a safe friend into your life to help you process the criticism.
    • Study Scripture to see what God’s Word says about that area.
    • Read a helpful book that addresses your sensitive area.

Ultimately we must look to Christ who provided the perfect pattern for responding to our chronic critics.

1Pet. 2.23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (NIV)

What has helped you respond to your critics?

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[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Determined (p. 50). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.