theodore roosevelt criticism leadership“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 is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, 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 he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt

I saw the excerpt quoted above early yesterday morning. It resonated with me strongly because it reflects who and what I am striving to become as a person, as a writer, and as a quintessential leader. Those, ultimately, are not three different roles or personas, but instead an integrated whole person who is and does the same right things all the time in every part of my life.

I wanted to see the context in which these words were spoken, so I found and read the entire 1910 speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” It’s well worth a close reading and an even-closer thoughtful reflection upon.

There’s an old adage that “everyone’s a critic.” To some extent that’s true.

In life, we have to be critical thinkers. As critical thinkers, we have to become discerning. As discerners, we have to continually make informed, knowledgeable, and irrefutable choices about what’s true and what’s false, what’s constructive and what’s destructive, what’s helpful and what’s unhelpful, and what’s encouraging and what’s discouraging.

Another component of being discerning is evaluating context and motivation. While none of us can truly know the full intents or motives of another person, we can, through carefully and consciously observing and interacting with others, see patterns emerge that can provide us with a general sense of the context, attitudes, and motivation within which others operate.

I personally don’t think many people do this much or well. There are a lot of reasons for that, which I’ll save for another blog post, because doing this well is something that we, as quintessential leaders, need to learn and employ on a continual basis. I will say, however, that I believe we introverts do this extremely well simply because observation is a much stronger part of our temperament than active engagement is or ever will be.

I interject that because it relates specifically to what Theodore Roosevelt said and how quintessential leaders handle criticism.

The reality is that there are two kinds of criticism and two kinds of critics. Do you know why? Do you know the difference? And which kind of criticism and critic describes you?

The majority of critics – and their criticisms – that we’ll encounter in life are the ones that President Roosevelt described in the quote at the beginning of the post. They are always spectators.

Spectators are unwilling and/or unable to be active participants. This may not be through any fault of their own, but how they spectate determines what kind of critic they are and what kind of criticism they offer.

This is where discerning context, attitudes, and motivation through observation and interaction over time comes into play. 

The critics that President Roosevelt described are first, and foremost, afraid to put themselves in an active, participatory role where they could be criticized. They, instead, play life “safe” and within a very narrowly-defined comfort zone. The reality is that outside of that safe, very small box they’ve constructed to live in, they’d fall apart and stay apart.

These critics also tend to exhibit the trait of jealousy. They have neither the skills nor the courage to do what they are criticizing, but instead of applauding and encouraging those who do, they are envious.

This comes out in extreme nitpickiness, in pointed and frequent references to failures, weaknesses, and errors, and subtle – or not-so-subtle – attempts to humiliate, degrade, demoralize, and debase those they are criticizing. These critics are the masters of the “put-down” and they are always trying to put those whom they are criticizing “in their place.”

The minority of critics – and their criticisms – that we’ll encounter are the exact opposite of the critic that President Roosevelt described. While some of them are spectators too, how they spectate differentiates them.

These critics offer – and I’m reluctant to even call this criticism, although at times it is – constructive criticism. They offer help, encouragement, and support. They get involved in the process of helping us succeed, to do better, to be better, and to grow.

Sometimes it’s painful, but the motivation behind it is sincere, genuine, kind, gentle, and edifying. Again, it’s only through discerning context, attitudes, and motivation through observation and interaction over time that we’ll know this kind of critic and criticism when we see it.

As a person, as a writer, and as a quintessential leader, I step into the arena every day of my life. If you’re reading this, so do you. Our experiences continually mirror in every agonizing detail that of the man in the arena that President Roosevelt describes.

So how do I and how do you, as people, as gift-recipients who are courageous enough to put the gifts we’ve been given out there for others to benefit from, as quintessential leaders who lead teams in every area of our lives, handle criticism?

  1. Know your critic. Let the criticisms of President Roosevelt’s critic roll off your back and don’t take them to heart nor let them deter you. Let the criticisms of those who offer help, support, and encouragement – knowing that they’ve already overlooked the flaws, the failures, the weaknesses and the errors, but they believe in you – become part of you and your growth and change.
  2. Examine yourself as a critic. Sometimes it is easier to see in someone else the things we do ourselves. If we are critics – and criticize – like President Roosevelt describes, then we need to change. We can’t expect and want our critics to be supportive, helpful, and encouraging, if we are not willing and able to the same with the people in our lives who are looking to us for the same thing.

criticism quintessential leader

  • Dismiss from life the critics that President Roosevelt describes. Keeping them in our lives – it doesn’t mean that we don’t love and care for them as people, but it does mean we remove their input and voices as much as we are able – doesn’t help us, and, frankly, doesn’t help them.

 

  • Keep and invite more meaningfully into life the critics who support, encourage and help us. We must cultivate and nurture these relationships and ensure that we are reciprocating fully in help, in encouragement, in support, and in expressing our appreciation and how much we value, want, and need these critics in our lives for the rest of our lives.

 

Comments
  1. iammarchhare says:

    Well, there is also the critic who believes they are offering constructive criticism, but the reality is that they are simply telling the other person how they would do it. Interestingly, it sometimes requires one to overlook the impossibility of doing it a particular way.

    Honestly, this is often the hardest to deal with, for the person offering the criticism will always be both frustrating and frustrated, thinking quite falsely that they are offering help and support but doing more harm than good.

    • I agree with the point you’re making, John, especially in the second paragraph. I don’t necessarily see these kinds of people as “critics,” per se, though. These people tend toward bullying and egotism exactly because they are convinced there is only one right way to do something and that’s their way.

      That’s not either kind of criticism, in my opinion, although these people may believe – and even say – that they’re offering “constructive criticism.” And I agree that it does way more harm than good because there is always an under note of contempt and disapproval behind the words telling the other person how they would do it.

  2. […] How Quintessential Leaders Handle Criticism […]

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