Aristotle once said, "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way -- that is not easy." Aristotle got it right.
But my experience suggests that most people are not as particular as Aristotle about how they become angry, what they become angry about, or whether they’re aiming their anger—or criticism—at the right person in the right way.
I’ve said for years that you can’t be in leadership for longer than ten minutes without being criticized. Leaders always attract both more kudos and more blame than they deserve. Criticism is part of the reason Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen.”
But the kitchen is getting hotter. What seems to be changing is the intensity of criticism. People don’t just criticize. They criticize even relatively minor actions of leaders at a level of emotional and rhetorical intensity that is at times startling in its rancor. This is true whether you are a nationally recognized leader like the President of the United States or you are a leader in your church, community, or local organization.
My experience teaches me that when people disagree with a leader’s decision or action some respond by asking questions and expressing concern. These people are looking for understanding and resolution, not self-righteous victory. But these people are dwindling in number.
My experience also suggests that an alarmingly increasing number of people who become upset with a leader’s decision respond in one of the following ways:
They make assumptions, do not check their facts, and respond in a manner that has the leader tried, found guilty, and preferably “executed” before he or she is given an opportunity to answer the criticism.
- They use emotionally loaded terms, even invective.
- They question not simply the merits of a decision or action; they question the integrity, motives, and character of the leader.
- They do not ask questions; they attack.
- They demonstrate an incredible level of cynicism or outright distrust toward leaders and toward organizations.
- They assume leaders make decisions or take actions wholly driven by self-interest and without regard for others or what might be considered objectively and morally right or best.
I realize this list paints a rather dark picture. But I’ve read too many letters, notes, or emails and participated in too many calls or even direct conversations characterized by one or more elements of this list.
I believe the increasing emotional and rhetorical intensity I see in criticism is rooted in the moral breakdown of culture. People do not trust anyone anymore because they’ve been “burned” by family members who’ve abandoned, abused, or otherwise rejected them. People believe others always lie because they’ve often been lied to. Too many people react angrily because they do not know how else to react.
The solution to this problem is obvious but not easy to implement. Our culture and in turn each one of us needs a spiritual revival. We need to understand that “God is love” so that we can love others. We need to know that God will forgive us so that we may forgive others, seasoning our speech with longsuffering, hope, and trust.
I cannot be responsible for everyone else’s behavior, but I certainly am responsible for my own. I can learn to receive and give criticism in a manner that honors God.
By no means am I perfect and by no means have I always responded properly to others with whom I’ve disagreed. But as a pattern I think I have learned to proceed carefully, check my facts, ask questions, and treat the other with respect. If after all this I still disagree than I can at least disagree agreeably.
I tell people never to respond “in kind,” never put in print what will shame you if it makes the newspapers, and never attack. I’ve learned to offer constructive criticism, and I’m hoping to help others to learn the same. How to criticize is, ironically perhaps, one of the lessons I’ve learned in leadership.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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