Receiving criticism isn’t easy. But it’s vital if you’re to grow in leading well, says Natalie Williams

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To lead well, we need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. We need to be confident but not arrogant. We need to see our flaws but not be weighed down by our insecurities. In addition, Christian leadership requires a specific kind of fine-tuning, as we try to balance courageous faith that pioneers and steps out with taking responsibility and stewarding faithfully.

Recently, I have been observing a couple of leaders who I love and respect. One is incredibly compassionate – she really cares about the people she works with, is frequently moved to anger at injustice and tears over poverty. I aspire to be as kind in my leadership as she is in hers. But she is deeply wounded by criticism, which sometimes comes thick and fast in her role. It leaves her battered and bruised, and she struggles to shake it off.

The other is the opposite: she does not mind criticism at all, seeing it simply as a part of work and life. She is undaunted by feedback and unconcerned whether or not people like her. I aspire to be as emotionally robust as she is. But she can come across as wholly task-driven, and those of us who know her well can sense her eye-rolling in response to our workplace woes.

Jesus told his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16-17, ESV), adding: “Beware of men”. Jesus cared about people profoundly, but he did not care about their opinion of him (Mark 12:14). He did not wholly entrust himself to people because he knows what we are like (John 2:24). Leading well over the long-term looks like learning to balance being soft-hearted and thick-skinned.

We should be moved by the lives of those around us, celebrating their joys and weeping with them in their lows. When criticised, we should keep our hearts soft, including towards the person or people criticising us. We must not harden our hearts towards those who see things differently, or may not like us, our leadership or our organisation.

But we also need to be resilient in the face of criticism. Not impervious – it shouldn’t bounce off us – but neither should it sink deep into us and linger in our hearts or minds. It is a difficult skill to be able to receive negative feedback well, letting it be a signpost for improvement rather than crushing us.

If we lead anything – even for a short amount of time – we will face the temptation to harden ourselves to those around us, prioritising projects over people, tasks over time with those who need it. Becoming soft-hearted – gentle and lowly like Jesus – is a process. 

In our culture of ‘no mercy’ for those with whom we disagree, it is so important that we work on keeping our hearts open. But when we do that, we also open ourselves up to the opinions of others, so we must develop a resilience in Christ that means when the criticisms come, we are not rocked but anchored.

Leading well looks like plunging our roots deep into Jesus, knowing that his approval is the only one that matters. Everything else can only be balanced when we are established in him.