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The Difficulty of Leading – Dealing With Criticism

I’m really very lucky. I’m a CEO, coach, consultant, speaker and facilitator, so many different roles where I get to work closely with leaders and emerging leaders and help them to be the best they can be. Through my work, I have the opportunity I have to share my message across the country and even around the world.

While that sounds amazing, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Let me tell you a story.

Recently I was one of eight ground-breaking female leaders to present at LeadX, a conference focused on “Women Leading Innovation in Productivity and Profitability.” I had a great time. The speakers were fascinating and I absorbed a lot of wonderful information that I could use in my work to help other leaders evolve.

My own presentation was really well received. I like to start with some music to lift the energy levels in the room and to help the people in the audience to focus on what I’m about to share with them. It suits my presentation style, which is also energetic, inspiring and fun. So many people stopped me after the conference to tell me how much they loved my presentation that I went home on a high.

But the problem with being a leader is that you’re often ahead of the pack. Not everyone will be able to see what you see or even understand what’s so important about what you’re doing.


Later I heard from someone whose opinion I respected and the feedback wasn’t great. I was devastated. But over the years I’ve learnt quite a few things about handling the tough parts of the Leadership role, and especially in handling criticism.

It’s hard when you lead the pack and people haven’t caught up to where you are. There can often be so many who still need to learn what you’ve already learnt. What’s obvious to you is not at all clear to them. That’s where your communication skills will really be tested, but before you open up the conversation with your critics, you first have to deal with your own response.

None of us like to be criticised but the trick is to stop focusing on the hurt, and start looking at the feedback itself.

Is there a hidden agenda? Perhaps they are just resisting change or perhaps they are jealous that you seem so confident. Perhaps they genuinely don’t understand what you’re doing.

Don’t accept the comments without thinking about why they were made. That’s the kind of baggage that can throw you off track.

Is there truth in what they say? We’re not always right. When you’re so close to your topic, it’s easy to overlook something, and it comes as a shock when it’s pointed out especially in critical terms.

Don’t think about how it was said; inspect that comment for any grains of truth that you need to see and build on.
How many negative comments were there? In comparison to the positive, you’ll probably find that the negative comments were few. We take the negative feedback to heart because we’re passionate about what we do, and criticism hurts.

Look at the balance of the comments. Which side weighs heaviest? You’ll soon see that most people love what you are doing and saying. The others will eventually catch up.

So, here it is in a nutshell. To survive criticism, you first look at the reasons behind the feedback, then look for any elements of truth you can take and work with. Finally, reassure yourself by giving as much value to the great feedback as you’ve allowed to the negative.

What did I discover about the feedback I was given? Well, in the overall scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. We are at different stages in our journey, that’s all. I realised that I feeling hurt was just wasting a perfectly good emotion!

Change is hard but leading change is even harder. Luckily, I’m up for the challenge.

About the author

SONIA MCDONALD

SONIA MCDONALD

An internationally recognised speaker, entrepreneur, leadership expert, coach and thought leader. Having over 20 years experience in human resource management and organisational development, Sonia shares her leadership wisdom and knowledge in her highly sought after book, Leadership Attitude.

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