9 Ways Students Can Handle Criticism Well

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Dr. Tim Elmore shares some suggestions on how to handle criticism well and how to become a good lightning rod.

A few years ago, Atlanta endured an extremely harsh thunderstorm. It was like we were in the movies. Lightning flashed and thunder crashed, trees fell down, some rooftops were ruptured, and power lines were out for days. It took over a week to get the city cleaned up and running again. Everyone saw the power of Mother Nature and, specifically, the damaging effects of lightning.

After the storm, several business owners made a smart move: they installed lightning rods. In case you’re not familiar with them, lightning rods are metal strips or rods, usually made of copper, used to protect buildings or structures from a violent lightning strike. The lightning rod is connected by a cable to the earth below, where it can channel the charge to a safe place. These rods are placed atop roofs to attract lightning and protect buildings from lightning strikes. In fact, they are needed most on structures that are tall or isolated. You see, lightning has a tendency to strike whatever is nearest or at the highest elevation.

This thing called a lightning rod was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin. In fact, he experimented with these rods or “attractors” long before his famous experiment with the key and the kite. Franklin knew the metal in those rods would attract the lightning if they were up high enough, and they could spare the building any damage. He got them working during his lifetime and by the 19th century, lightning rods were popular and ornate, a symbol of American ingenuity.

Lightning rods are a picture of a leadership principle. Leaders operate like lightning rods. They naturally attract light and heat from others. They are most likely to be criticized when things go wrong, blamed if things don’t get fixed, and honored if things go well. When a storm hits, they take the light and heat for the team. Both the perks and the price of leadership is recognition. People look to you. The downside of this is criticism. People vent their anger on leaders. If you’re leading others, you’ll be criticized and attacked. Just be ready. President Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” The key is to ground the heat in a positive way.

I don’t know of any leader who did this better than President Abraham Lincoln. It’s likely that no president in American history received such criticism and dishonor, sometimes from those who worked closest to him. Lincoln received much grief and bitterness from War Secretary Stanton. Once, a clerk asked President Lincoln what he thought of Stanton. Lincoln said he felt he was a good leader, straightforward, and almost always right. The clerk looked at him and said, “Mr. President, do you know that Mr. Stanton thinks you are an ape and criticizes you as a fool every chance he gets? How could you say such a thing?” Mr. Lincoln just smiled at the clerk and replied, “You didn’t ask me what Stanton thought of me. You asked what I thought of Mr. Stanton.”

Lincoln kept a level head and didn’t strike back. He took the heat for his team several times when Southerners lashed out at his cabinet. During the Civil War, Lincoln once encouraged a general to attack, but the general feared losing his reputation if the battle didn’t go well. Lincoln then did the unthinkable. He wrote the general and said, “I want you to go on the offense. If the battle goes well, you can take all the credit for victory. If it doesn’t go well, I will take the blame completely.”

Lincoln also found a way to build lightning rods in his own leadership, places where he could vent and not damage team members. When angry with someone, Lincoln would occasionally write a hot letter to them. Then, he would set it aside until he cooled down. Inevitably, he would never send it. He had a drawer of angry letters he never sent.

Nine Ways to Deal with Criticism Well

Here are some suggestions on handling criticism and becoming a good lightning rod:

  1. Understand the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
    (Do they want to help you or hurt you? Can you see that anything good can come from it?)
  1. Recognize that people act out what they are experiencing inside. It may not be about you.
    (Hurting people naturally hurt people. Intimidated people intimidate. What’s inside comes out.)
  1. Remember that good people get criticized.
    (Some of the finest leaders in history were attacked. You’re in good company.)
  1. Don’t just see the critic, see the crowd.
    (Don’t let the minority rule. Are others feeling the same way as the critic or is the critic isolated?)
  1. Eat the fish and spit out the bones.
    (Digest the criticism and act on anything that’s accurate. Improve what you can. Discard the rest.)
  1. Wait for time to prove them wrong.
    (Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was considered shameful and poorly written at the time.)
  1. Act, don’t react. Don’t get defensive.
    (Don’t let their emotion dictate yours. Thank them for their opinions. Take the high road.)
  1. Seek wise counsel from others.
    (Consult with other leaders to see what kernels of truth might be in the criticism.)
  1. Concentrate on your mission; change your mistakes.
    (Many leaders get so frazzled when criticized that they do the opposite.)

One last insight: When a storm occurs and lightning does strike in your organization, fires of conflict can begin burning. Remember, you and every team member carry two buckets with you—a bucket of water and a bucket of gasoline. You can either throw gasoline on the fire and make it worse with a negative attitude, or you can throw water on it and put the fire out.

Let’s help students understand this:

A lightning rod protects a building by safely taking the strike and grounding it. It channels the impact of that strike to a safe place. Leaders handle anger and criticism in a similar way. They take the heat for the team, and they find appropriate outlets for their own anger.

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