In my line of work, I’m exposed to a fair number of critics. Whether it’s comments on this blog, reviews of my book, or critiques of my performance as a speaker, there is no shortage of criticism of my work. Some is glowing. Some is marginal. Some is downright ugly.
As leaders, we’re often in a position where our opinions and criticism carry great weight and those perspectives can positively and negatively affect the lives of those around us. Unfortunately we’re not always careful with our criticism nor are we mindful of the corresponding responsibilities that go along with our words.
I’ve been meaning to write this post since about 2008 (okay… so I got a little behind in my work). The Disney Pixar movie Ratatouille came out around that time (and if you haven’t seen it, you MUST!). One villain in the movie is Anton Ego – the food critic. Hell-bent on taking down Gusteau’s restaurant, Ego makes a point of going out of his way to stage a dramatic food tasting with the intent of writing a final scathing review that dooms Gusteau’s to irrelevance once and for all.
Anyone who has seen the movie knows Ego is blown away by the meal he enjoys there. To his amazement and chagrin, he realizes he must write a review worthy of the wonderful meal he was served. The beginning of his review was poignant and carries a lesson for all of us:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”
In an age where we can all be critics, whether it’s in blog post comments, on our own websites, on twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, or anywhere else we can share our ideas and opinions, the importance of understanding our responsibility as a critic is great. Yet we often ignore this responsibility and blast away at the object of our derision with little thought for the implications of our actions. Well allow me to offer a challenge for all of us to aspire to be something more than a simple critic…
My question to you is are you a critic or a creator?
As a leader, it’s easy for you to rain down criticism upon the work of others. You don’t do the work – you simply set the direction for the work to be done, define the performance standards, and judge the quality of the work after it is completed. Like it or not, you’re a professional critic.
What you must understand is your criticism carries weight. It impacts the performance reviews of your people. It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted. It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not. You get the picture – your words change lives.
I invite you to go a step beyond simple criticism. Help build something beyond your words. Instead of simply designating something as crap, offer constructive thoughts on how to improve it. Give people the coaching, feedback, and resources to improve their average pieces of junk. Identify opportunities to connect ideas and people so they can build something greater. Be part of the solution rather than simply pointing out the problem.
Better yet, change your mindset from one of critic to one of creator. Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas. Roll up your sleeves, make your own contributions to that idea, and be open to your work being judged by others. It’s risky. Our insecurities hold us back and relegate us to the safe world of the critic rather than allowing us to take the chance of creating an average piece of junk.
If you’re not up for being a creator, at least be willing to put yourself out there to support and defend new ideas. Don’t simply follow the crowd and their opinion of something. Form your own independent thoughts and stand behind those beliefs. Don’t bow to the criticism of other critics who might criticize you (wow… stop and think that one through). It’s hard enough to create something new for those poor souls who subject themselves to the criticism of the world. I’m sure they would welcome your support, encouragement, and suggestions.
Leadership is about being out in front and taking others to new places. You can’t lead if you simply follow the conventional wisdom because it’s safe. So the next time you consider dropping a criticism bomb on the work of another, I invite you to consider the feelings of that individual, the effort they put into creating that work, the risk they’re taking in subjecting it to judgment, and the hopes and dreams they have tied up in the idea. After you’ve considered those things, then render your criticism appropriately and try to go beyond judgment and become a co-creator yourself.
– I humbly subject my creations to your criticism (but be gentle and professional please). I’d love your thoughts on both this blog/its posts as well as my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. I hope you enjoy both.