Self-Critique Every Aspect of Your Leadership

Are leaders fooling themselves?

Some leaders think they know how well they are doing, how great the business is being perceived by their employees, and how much love and adoration they are getting from their coworkers.

They assume these thoughts because perhaps they do not want to know the real truth. They are afraid that their own opinion of things will not match up to the actual reality; and that would, in essence, implicate them as a poor leader—so, they think the best of themselves.

However, where does the truth begin and where does it end when we try and evaluate ourselves as leaders?

Have you ever wondered how you are being perceived by your coworkers, managers, suppliers, and customers? Do you think you know how they feel, or are you making a lot of assumptions?

I think there is always some fear of being criticized or not being well liked. Perhaps we turn a blind eye in understanding where our faults exist and are evident to others.

Are you afraid to know the truth?

How Does One Self-Critique in Terms of Overall Leadership Qualities?

Is it on great financial results? Growth of the business, increased market share, and so forth? Certainly these are critical measurements of successful leadership, but is it also something much deeper and maybe less obvious to the leader?

I think perhaps it is; in fact, I have seen leaders make fantastic assumptions about themselves in terms of how they are being perceived by others and how they are treating the people they come in contact with. Being “well liked” by your coworkers is great (not always completely possible), but being fair and well respected and treating people with dignity are far better.

Remember the former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, when he used to ask people, “How am I doing?” He was, in my opinion, a great leader for being humble enough to ask that sort of question about himself. He was also irritable, opinionated, often rude, and prone to yelling—qualities that I do not think are worthy of great leadership.

He was quick with a quip or a putdown, and when he got excited or indignant—which was often—his voice became high pitched. He dismissed his critics as “wackos,” feuded with Donald Trump (“piggy”) and fellow former mayor Rudolph Giuliani (“nasty man”), lambasted the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and once reduced the head of the city council to tears.

“You punch me, I punch back,” Koch once observed. “I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.”

Or, as he put it in Mayor, his best-selling autobiography: “I’m not the type to get ulcers. I give them.” (1)

I use Mr. Koch as an example because growing up and watching him as mayor of that great city was a learning experience in many ways. At the same time, his leadership behavior was often displayed as what I now see as leadership faults.

Are you the kind of manager that “gives ulcers” to other people?

It turns out that both abusive and vicariously abusive supervision have similar impacts on employees, with both forms leading to more job frustration, a greater likelihood of coworkers abusing one another, and a greater lack of confidence in the company as a whole. “When vicarious, abusive supervision is present, employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly.” (2)

I once observed a person in a prominent leadership position fielded questions to his employees in a meeting where candid feedback was provided—and it was not good feedback from the employees.

Stunned, this leader, to his credit, encouraged others to speak up, though I could see him becoming increasingly enraged. I did feel sorry for him as his face reddened with embarrassment and disbelief. My real feelings of sympathy were short lived, however, as I felt for the employees who had to work under him for all those years.

Clearly, he had been doing things which his employees had held back telling him, maybe because they feared repercussions or getting fired. I do not know, but it was one hell of a wake-up call for this leader. He truly had no idea that his employees felt this way about him. He did not realize how badly his treatment of his employees affected their well-being and their performance.

Jack Welch calls these kinds of leaders “jerks.”

Things eventually caught up to him, and he was fired.

Take away points…

Get Real with Yourself

Do you get defensive when someone criticizes your leadership? I know I have in the past, and it is not a good leadership trait. It becomes all too easy to justify actions, to become terse in your reply, to get super defensive and believe you are 100% correct, and this sort of behavior shows how easily you can become unglued.

Instead, get to the heart of the matter as to what is really being said. Stay calm. Chances are you already know why people are saying the things they are, but are you really listening and accepting of the criticism in a constructive manner? And what are you personally going to change in your behavior?

Use Criticism As a Means for Improving

Simply, take the criticism as a blessing. Get to the heart of the matter as to why people are making the critique, and often what you will find is that it is people who are feeling left out, feeling powerless to initiate change and think for themselves. They feel constricted from developing solutions and so they express discontent, and the leader is the target.

THINK about the criticism being levied because while it might be upsetting to you and taken as a personal attack, there most likely is some truth in what others are expressing. Listen attentively to the criticism, however harsh it may be. That is the part that takes guts.

There will always be mean and hurtful criticism that is not warranted. Let it go. Take it in stride and get on with what you need to be doing.

Set the Example

When I observe leaders receive criticism, the most impressive quality to me is their initial silence. Why silence?

It shows me the leader is absorbing the information. It shows me consideration for what is being said, and that in itself demonstrates respect to the other person. Allow others to see your sincere demeanor while demonstrating your ability to listen and learn.

That sets the example. That is leadership.


  1. “Ed Koch”—Huffington Post, New York, 2015
  2. “The Dark Side of Leadership”—FORBES Business, February 2013
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