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How to Feed the Hand that Bites You

One of his questions was, “How do you handle critics?”

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

This outstanding article first appeared in the Leadership Magazine of Christianity Today. There are many outstanding articles on the website of that Magazine. Go to and search the Leadership Archives. Fred Smith was the outstanding leader who wrote the article and many others.

Note that my Facebook live stream of June 18, 2021 is about this subject. The article and the video/podcast should be very helpful when used together.

The care and feeding of critics

How to feed the hand that bites you by Fred Smith

 Having been the head of several organizations, I’ve had my share of critics. So, when LEADERSHIP asked me to write about the care and feeding of critics, one word came to mind: arsenic.

Then I remembered three occasions when friends cared enough to confront me. At the moment, their criticism stung, but it has been a blessing for a lifetime. Criticism properly given and properly received accounts for much of the progress in a person or an organization.

Every leader has to develop a plan for handling criticism, because criticism will come in any dynamic organization. Capable people bring out friction and difference of opinion. In fact, if an organization is completely placid, I have found it’s generally not very productive.

Expect criticism whenever one or more of the following is true (unless, of course, the church is made up exclusively of other saints):

  • the change costs money
  • the change causes inconvenience

  • there is a shift in power or recognition.

You can also count on criticism when you have an “inspirational program”— one that comes suddenly that sends you into an emotional high. Criticism will likely come from those who have not had that thrill.

Therefore, the leader must expect criticism much as an Olympian would expect and plan for pain. I listened to Bob Richards, the Olympic gold medallist, interview younger Olympic winners of the gold. He asked them. “What did you do when you began to hurt?”

None of these Olympians was surprised by the question; all had a specific way of handling the pain— some even prayed.

After the interviews, I asked Bob why he had asked about handling pain, and he said matter-of-factly, “You never win the gold without hurting.”

A leader must accept the challenge of criticism rather than let it become a threat. When criticism is a threat, a leader becomes defensive, but when it is viewed as a challenge, he or she can handle it constructively. 

Let me share some of the positive approaches I have learned to handle criticism.

Classify your critics

Critics come in many shapes and sizes. Some are overt, and some are covert. Some hit you in the nose, and others stab you in the back. I have found classifying my critics helpful; it helps me anticipate what a person may say.

I’m sure you’ll have no trouble putting people’s names with these types (but be sure to classify according to people’s performance, not your personal feelings for them).

  1. People who resent authority per se. These critics have never outgrown their disrespect for any authority but their own. As children they rebelled against their parents, as employees against their bosses, and as adults against leaders in whatever groups they joined. They adhere to the bumper sticker slogan, QUESTION ALL AUTHORITY.

Such critics can be worked only in a loose harness. They must be given permission to rebel, which is almost an oxymoron . . . but practical.

  • People with natural leadership qualities who are not part of the majority. As a result, they become leaders of the minority, and they feel they have to be in opposition to serve their function. The more capable they are, the more difficult they are for a leader to deal with.

In the plant, I looked for this type of critic. We even kept a list of the young, unofficial leaders—those whom other people listened to. Unless we utilized their natural leadership qualities constructively, these critics would become destructive. So, I tried to move many of them into management, often with good results.

  • People who criticize to show their superior knowledge. Those who consider themselves good in a particular area will criticize others not so good. For example, a great dresser will criticize others’ clothes.

Sometimes these critics can be turned into coaches, if they genuinely have an area of expertise. (More on how to do that later.)

  • “Natural howlers.” Most organizations have people who are like the hound dog lying on a cockleburr: he would rather howl than move. Every new idea becomes another cockleburr.
  • People who use criticism to exorcise internal conflicts. As a friend says of these critics, “They are a fight going somewhere to happen.” Generally, their criticism is perpetual and petulant. In fact, most bitter criticism is personal, not organizational; it’s not over doctrine but ego.

I’ve found I can use such criticism as a way of checking those who are hurting. A person dissatisfied with himself or herself will generally transfer that, and as a pastor, knowing who is hurting goes with the job. Criticism might be an invitation to meet someone at a place of deep need.

  • Genuine, honest, interested critics. Finally, there are some who feel responsible for the welfare of the organization. I must treat these critics with respect, attention, and courtesy. They are not my enemies
    but, ultimately, my friends. Good critics are like buoys in the river: they keep you in the channel.

Sorting through your critics is not always easy. Sometimes we have to take the approach Solomon did: recommend cutting the baby to find out who is cause-oriented and who is vindictiveness-oriented.

Turn critics into coaches

A good critic and a good coach both see what is wrong. They see for a different reason, however. The critic sees the problem to point it out and establish his authority or expertise, while the coach sees the problem in order to work on it and improve it. I believe that with proper care most critics can be turned into coaches. What we normally think of as liabilities then become assets.

A few months after I became an executive with Genesco, I grew concerned about all the things that were wrong with the organization. I felt it my undiluted responsibility to talk about these to Maxey Jarman, the president, for fear the company might go out of business (regardless of the fact it had risen from a tiny start to become the fifth largest firm in the industry). Fortified with my list, I went to see the president, even without an appointment.

Maxey was gracious and asked me to sit down and recite the list, which I started to do. About halfway through, he commented that I was right on target with several of my observations (immediately he became one of the smartest executives I’d ever met). When I finished the list, he asked me what I was doing for the next three weeks. He wanted me to take on, in addition to my regular job, writing a better way of doing everything I had criticized. As I walked toward the door, he gave me a faint smile and asked my permission to continue operating in the way we were, since it was the best he knew. I gave him my permission and headed for my office.

Three weeks later, I didn’t call Maxey—he called me. He wanted to see my write-up of better ways. I had to face him and say, “I’ve been here only a short time, and I don’t know a better way of doing everything I criticized.”

With unusual firmness for this Christian gentleman, he said, “Fred, we’re glad to have you with this company. We want your suggestions, even your criticisms. But don’t ever criticize another thing in this outfit until you’ve got a better way of doing it worked out on paper—and you’re willing to risk your reputation as an executive on its workability. “

In Tennessee we say, “He learnt me that,” and as far as I know, I did not make that mistake again.

Maxey taught me an invaluable lesson: always to be positive when looking for the negative. I had been a critic; Maxey taught me how much better it is to be a coach.

The first step in turning a critic into a coach is to define his or her area of responsibility. I don’t believe in saying, “If you see something wrong, tell me about it.” That’s too general. That fails to define his or her area of responsibility.

I’m careful to use people at their point of strength, so they will be good coaches. For example, if someone has been critical about matters of finance, and I believe he or she genuinely knows about finance, I will invite that person to coach me in that area. Or I might invite someone to coach me in the areas of personal relationships or theology.

For many years I was alternate teacher of a large Sunday school class. I chose three people to be my coaches.

My wife, Mary Alice, was responsible to be sure that when we got in the car I had my notes and my glasses and that I had the right attitude. If I was negative or judgmental, my attitude soured the milk of the Word.

I also recruited an executive and a doctor, both of whom I respect intellectually and spiritually, to be responsible for telling me if the lesson hung together well, if it was practical and clear. I also wanted to know if there was “too much me and not enough He.”

These three coaches kept me on course.

When turning a critic into a coach, it’s important not to argue with the person’s honest opinion or to try to make him or her defend it. The only thing coaches are responsible for is to give me their considered opinion in a designated area. I’m not obligated to agree, but I must listen with appreciation.

Sometimes if a person is naturally critical, you can make him a constructive coach by letting him know, “I expect you to criticize in this particular area, but you are responsible for giving high-quality criticisms as an outgrowth of your talent.” That tells the person to refine their numerous criticisms into the best few and pass along only those.

When a coach criticizes you, after listening, get the person to repeat it and write down the specific criticisms.

If it’s a weak criticism, the more the person repeats it, the weaker it will get.

But if it’s a valid criticism, it will grow stronger, and you-will have a record of it to act on.

Anticipate specific criticisms

A naval officer told me that one time the brass in Washington wanted to find a submarine captain who would volunteer for a dangerous experiment under the ice cap. They talked to one particularly capable captain, but he asked for permission to talk to his crew before he volunteered their services. He wanted to take on the mission, but he knew it was dangerous.

The captain took the offensive. He called the crew together and started listing on a sheet why they should tell the brass the mission was too dangerous. He put up the first criticism, and immediately a crew member spoke up, “That’s true, but not in every case.” Then the crew suggested how that objection could be overcome.

By the time the captain got through the list of negatives, his crew had convinced each other that the negatives could be overcome. The captain concluded, “I take it, then, that you want to attempt this mission.” They agreed, and they did the mission, successfully. The captain won their support because he anticipated their criticisms and defused them.

Some leaders bring a program into a group without proper planning, hoping to get an approving vote. They may get the vote, but criticism is liable to follow. People don’t like to be surprised, and surprises give the impression of a manipulated agenda.

Every capable leader knows the “thought leaders” in a group and often talks to them ahead of time, enlisting their support or listening to their criticisms before a meeting. You can’t go into a meeting without knowing how the voting will go.

Assume criticism is logical

It’s always best to assume that a person’s criticism is sincere. Given the base from which the person is working, the criticism is entirely logical. The key is to understand the base from which people work.

For example, my wife criticizes my sports-car style of driving, because her base of understanding is, “Anybody who drives like that will eventually have a wreck.” With that
base, her criticism of my driving is entirely logical. My base is different, but to me just as logical: “The more I drive this, the more experience I get, and the less likely I am to have a wreck.”

In church votes on money, for example, a business executive may feel that the economy is going down and that church debt is a dangerous thing. Another business leader in the church may have an entirely different base: inflation is on the way, and therefore, church debt is sensible. Another person may hold a theological opinion that churches should never go into debt.

Thus, to work with people’s criticisms, we must know their deep beliefs, biases, experiences, theological positions, and especially their ego positions. For example, there’s generally a majority and minority group on any board (just as there is in the legislature), and someone in the minority will generally be an obstructionist simply by virtue of his or her position.

When you understand the person’s internal logic, you can show respect for the criticism without being namby-pamby.

Limit the criticism you’ll accept

A leader must know how to limit the criticism he or she accepts. I learned this from a day labourer who wanted to be a success in life. Many years ago, he spent the day with me in Chicago and went over a simple plan he had written out, and he gave me a copy.

Recently I read in the newspaper that this man had contributed $6 million to higher education. I immediately went back over the points of his program and saw how he had followed them so successfully. One of his points was, “I will accept criticism only from someone who has something to gain from my success.” To him, those people were his family, his superiors, and his friends. By limiting his acceptable criticism, he no doubt missed some that might have been helpful, but he missed a great deal that would have been harmful. As he told me, “People think you ought to keep an open mind, but if you keep it too open, people throw garbage

Many times, I have let one critical person keep me from recognizing the strength of the hundred who are in agreement. When I’m speaking, for example, if I sense a critical person, he or she can distract me.

I’ve learned not to overestimate criticism. It’s possible to turn a cold into a cancer. Some criticisms sting more than they damage, and every bee sting is not a snake bite. Remember the old philosophical adage, “This, too, shall pass.”

Those of us who have known Billy Graham for many years have admired the way he has not answered his critics. Sometimes if a race horse pays too much attention to a horse fly, it makes the fly too important. Some people’s only taste of success is the bite they take out of someone who is doing more than they are.

It’s helpful to have a friend or two who can help you sort the minor criticisms from the major ones. Then you can treat minor criticisms in a minor way -_such as ignore them. But you can also take seriously major criticisms that will grow and can’t be ignored. Honest peo ple with a fresh perspective can help you recognize what is a deep and powerful current and what is just a surface wave.

One way I limit the criticism I accept is to refuse any that distracts from the organization’s main purpose.

Bill Waugh, owner of a restaurant chain, was asked to become chairman of The Salvation Army. He chose as his theme “Keep the main thing the main thing.” By that he meant “Keep the purpose of the organization clearly in mind and do not get diverted from it.”

Make constructive criticism part of the culture

Since criticism is going to come, it pays to make constructive criticism a part of the church culture. Every well-led organization needs to have an established, stated, understood, and agreed-upon culture. Why not make it part of the ongoing definition of the organization that criticism, when offered constructively, is welcomed.

For this to happen, the people must hear you as leader—over and over and in different ways—say you value it.

The statement can come in the form of a sermon, for example. David’s life would not have turned around if it had not been for Nathan. That’s an excellent passage to point out the value of a loyal opposition. Lift up the responsibility of people to keep leaders from serious mistakes, to make sure we look at alternative solutions, and to keep us conscious of our responsibilities rather than our rights.  

Often, I’ve heard a capable speaker say on a sensitive point, “Now here’s something that I haven’t always believed—in fact, I used to oppose it vehemently But some people have helped me rethink this position.” Such a speaker is making constructive criticism acceptable.

List the times that critics have been helpful to you. After all, even the mule was helpful to the prophet. Then, if you preach about criticism, you can illustrate from your list the type of criticism that is appreciated.

Give strokes for good criticism. In an annual meeting or board meeting, you might say, “You are the lighthouse that will keep us off the rocks.” Or point out that a constructive critic is the tail to the kite: the kite may feel it’s a tremendous drag, but the kite would dart all over without it.

My mentor, Maxey Jarman, felt that every organization needed a perceptive and persistent cockleburr. Lou was a great one. Once we were developing a golf course for employees. As usual, he saw the other side and said we should be developing fishing facilities because so many more employees fished than played golf. As a side remark, I told him, “1 don’t like to fish, because I never seem to catch any.’

He replied, “I can understand that, because in order to catch anything you have to be smarter than it.’

Lou was a valuable member of the team, though at times irritating. He kept us from “slumber in Zion.” Maxey didn’t squelch that quality but instead encouraged Lou to use it responsibly for the common good.

If we make constructive criticism an accepted part of the culture, we won’t increase the amount of criticism; instead, we will channel the existing criticism so that it accomplishes something valuable.

Don’t turn criticism into a personal contest

Some leaders have gotten side-tracked into depending on their popularity for agreement. This can later develop into a contest between those who are for the leader and those who are against the leader. Making your popularity the issue gives the opposition a firm base from which to work. So often we make criticism into a personal contest, when if left alone, it will die of its own lack of meaning.

My dear late father was constantly in fights; first, because he thought he was right, and then, because he thought that right was always in a fight. Every opposition was an attack of the Devil. Too often, the purification of the faith is much more an ego matter than a spiritual one.

Recently, I led a leadership retreat with a successful retiring pastor. I asked him about the early days of his ministry, and he told me that as a seminary student he offered $100 to several leading pastors just to let him sit and ask them some questions. (I don’t think
a single one refused the interview, though I don’t think they took the money.)

One of his questions was, “How do you handle critics?”

Each one had a plan, but it varied greatly according to the individual. One, though, had the spirit of inquisition and said, “Get them out.” That is one way, but I doubt it’s the Christian way. Critics are not heretics, and we can’t take the position that wrong has no rights.

In one church that was having difficulty, for example, the pastor determined he was not going to take sides on the theological question at hand. He told the people he had been called to be their pastor, not to dictate their policies. The lay people worked out the matter amicably, and the pastor ended up with little criticism.

One time I was asked to lead the music in a small church. When I arrived, the preacher asked me never to say anything against any person in the church. I knew I would be criticized at times and I thought it was a rather weak-kneed way to respond.

But by the time I was ready to leave, I found I had more genuine feelings for the people in that church because I could look anyone in the eye, knowing I had not at any time said anything derogatory about him. There was a spiritual benefit in not retaliating with my own criticisms. The pastor’s principle had kept me from turning criticism into a personal contest.

Learn to lose a battle in order to win a war.

Admit when you’ve been wrong

When Charlton Heston was asked how he could have enjoyed such a long marriage, he gave credit to “those three little words”—not the ones we think of, but “I was wrong.”

I have found I can sometimes make a friend of a critic by adding three more words as a preface: “You are right … I was wrong.”

I try to look on every reasonable criticism as a chance to review my position. It just might be that I am wrong. While the Scripture might be inerrant, those of us who lead are not infallible. I had a friend who often confessed that he had been wrong in the past, but I could never get him to admit to being wrong in the present.

It helps me a little bit, when I’m being criticized, just to realize that I, too, have done some criticism in the past that was dead wrong. Through the years I have developed a “humility list” of criticisms I made of situations, programs, investments, and people that turned out to be totally wrong.

I still blush when I think how cocksure I was that the “Tiger in the Tank” advertising program wouldn’t work. I couldn’t believe people would hang miniature tiger tails out of their gas tanks. Yet that program went down as one of the longest and most successful advertising campaigns ever.

In the give-and-take of criticism, it’s a warning sign when we fail to see humour in the situation. In the longest study of successful executives done by Harvard, one of the four qualities they identified in these leaders was a sense of humour. There are many times in leadership when we can laugh or develop high blood pressure, and the laughing keeps us human.

Once I was coming out of the factory during a snowstorm, and several of the employees were standing at the door waiting for their rides. As passed them and started down the steps said, “God put skis on me,” referring to my size-fifteen shoes. After I had gone down a couple of steps, I heard one of the employees say, “And from where I’m standing, he gave you a pillow to fall on, too.”

All I could do was turn around, smile, and Say, “You’re so right, my friend.”

Don’t take revenge

It’s difficult to stav objective about critics. Sometimes we feel they’re a needle in a balloon factory. Still, leaders must take a firm stand without a vindictive spirit.

If someone criticizes you publicly, you can use your critic to show that you’re a reasonable person. “I know that some people here whom I admire the most will be the first to be against this idea. If I didn’t think they were fair-minded enough to consider the things that I have considered and to realize that I have thought long and hard about this, then I would have been skepti cal about proposing the idea myself.

It’s so important to personify tolerance and avoid all retribution.

“Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” That means, for example, not using the pulpit to answer your critics; in doing so, you are riding a horse and hitting somebody who’s walking.

We must also be careful to avoid answering critics in our public prayers. Prayers are directed to God, not to the board.

Gerry-rigging a meeting to have certain questions asked—to me, that’s unethical. So is promising answers and then not giving any, in hope the issue will die.

Effectual prayer is one of the appropriate armaments against criticism. A dear friend was being emotionally crucified by his critics. These people had profited from him and owed him gratitude rather than criticism, but still they bitterly fought him.

When he died, I found a prayer list in his Bible. At the top of his list were these simple yet powerful words:

“Pray for those who are lying about me.”

Lynn Green and his wife Marti first came to England and began the work of Youth With A Mission here in 1971. From 2004-2011 Lynn was YWAM’s International Chairman. He continues to convene YWAM’s global leadership meetings, and focuses much of his energy on international leadership development.

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