All leaders will be criticised. Their actions will be second-guessed, broken apart, and analysed in the smallest detail. As a leader you will never please everyone and will need to deal with the many people who utterly refuse to celebrate the success of anyone else because of their own limitations.

We see this behaviour frequently, for example, in the treatment by the press and the public of international athletes. These are people who have the focus and dedication to make the sacrifices necessary to get to the top, yet if they stumble when they finally reach the pinnacle of their sport, any momentary lapses or inadequacies can be met with anything from ridicule to outright condemnation and character assassination.


The People in the Stands

This kind of negative treatment was directed towards Tim Henman, whose failure to win Wimbledon, despite getting so close so many times, is generally portrayed in the UK as a failure. He attracts much criticism – the fact that he stayed close to the top of the world rankings for so many years, which at the time was virtually unknown for a British male tennis player, is commonly discounted by those who prefer to watch from the stands or their armchairs at home.

The people who exhibit this behaviour cheer when their idols win, enjoying their feel-good emotions, but are intolerant and critical when they lose. Such people are merely spectators – and spectators can never really understand what it means to be a player.

We can also readily see this behaviour directed at our statesmen and politicians, and at famous names from the entertainment industry.

The people who engage in with this kind of criticism don’t realise that they’re displaying a belief in their own inadequacy, or that seeking to bring down anyone who rises above them will never make them feel better. They are spectators as well, but this time in life, and their behaviours are purely an expression of their own limitations and insecurity. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem simply don’t spend their time trying to pull others down – they would have nothing to gain from doing so.


Sour Grapes

Egotism dictates that your leadership may even attract criticism from other people simply because they would like to enjoy the success that you’ve achieved but don’t believe they have the ability to do so. This was the moral of Aesop’s classic 3,000-year-old fable, “The Fox and the Grapes”. The story is of a hungry fox that tries to eat some grapes hanging high up on the vine, but he can’t reach them. Rather than admit defeat, he decides that he didn’t really want them anyway, because they are probably either unripe or sour. This is where the expression “sour grapes”, which is used to describe the envious disparagement of others, originated from. Clearly, this trait is deeply rooted!

Equally clearly, such envious disparagement has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the detractors. They aren’t really describing you, so much as they are defining themselves. Successful leaders even get rejected by people who have never met them.

So, if you are going to achieve unusual levels of success, it will be important to your happiness that you learn to deal with such criticism: you will have high-profile failures from time to time, but you’ll very likely attract criticism even if you didn’t. The most important element in dealing with it effectively is to be able to adopt an attitude where you don’t take it personally.


Cultivating Our Inner Strength

To rise above the criticism of others, we need to change our mental orientation towards it. I don’t believe there’s a much better starting point than to remind ourselves:

  • Of the courage required to step into a position that could attract people’s negative attention.
  • That, as long as we have behaved ethically and with integrity, criticism stems from the inadequacies of others. It is a product of their character which may have little or nothing to do with us.

I love the way that Theodore Roosevelt put it in his 1910 speech in Paris:

“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 in 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 the 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.”

We can isolate ourselves even further from the negativity of others by understanding that anyone behaving in this manner is actually suffering – having the low self-esteem that drives this people to criticise doesn’t feel good. This can allow us to empathise and have compassion for their position.

The power of compassion to create positive outcomes is enormous. By raising our awareness of why others behave as they do, our own self-management will improve, and we will be able to remain calm and comfortable even when facing serious challenges. That’s why our understanding of others is such an important element of emotional intelligence.

It also helps not to take ourselves too seriously. Much unnecessary upset comes when people feel that they have been insulted, when tolerance or a sense of humour would actually serve them much better. There is an old Zen story that illustrates this point well:

There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he was still able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study under him.

One day an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior hurled insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in the master’s face. For hours he continued the verbal assault. Through it all the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that he did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and questioned him. “How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?”

The master replied, “If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The master knew, as his students did not, that peace of mind is something over which we can develop conscious control. And such is the power of this inner strength that it can allow us to overcome many tough external conditions.


Our Experience is Not Passive

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”  ~ Aristotle

Contrary to Aristotle’s famous quote, even doing nothing isn’t an option for leaders, making criticism something they are all-but-guaranteed to attract. Therefore, the only positive choice is to take active control of the meaning that we give to others’ behaviour towards us, to cultivate a similar attitude towards criticism as that demonstrated by the great warrior facing his challenger: not to allow ourselves to be affected by it. By doing so, we will be able to avoid feeling insulted, hurt or unfairly treated by others.

This is where the power lies, because it gives us the ability to shift our experience of reality – actively shaping our perceptions in a way that serves us – so that what once felt like criticism literally becomes something else. We might, for example, perceive it instead as others’ intolerance, or their pain or stress, or perhaps it could even simply be registered as feedback.

Once we’ve achieved the ability to consciously shift our experience, it is easy to see that no one can criticise us nor, indeed, in any other way negatively affect our mental state, without our permission.

Permission is a choice – don’t allow it to be automatic!