Donald Trump and Meryl Streep locked horns last week — turns out we can learn a lot from that whole kerfuffle about leadership and criticism...

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That's Meryl getting a big-swish award; which she then used the opportunity to have 'erself a fair crack. Then Trump went berko on twitter. In the aftermath, it turns out Trump and I actually agree on something! We obviously both weren’t fans of Bridges Over Madison County. But beyond that, I'd suggest his handling of Streep's criticism is worth putting under the microscope...shall we?


I get around on the tweeting space in rather a sporadic fashion. But one tweet in particular sent the whole 140-character brigade into meltdown last week.

Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood…

That was part of a tweet put out by the US President-elect Donald Trump. Very soon to be (as in a matter of hours) the most powerful man in the world. Wow.

I made mention in my newsletter from last week that this invites a very interesting discussion…so let's dive in.

Now I should caveat that in writing this newsletter, it is my intention to explore something eminently more useful than a political debate. I want to explore the role of a leader when criticism comes your way.*

So let’s use Trump’s remarkably thin-skinned** twitter retort to Streep’s politically-charged, strident acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes as a useful catalyst to explore an important set of questions:

As a leader, what should we do when faced with criticism from others?

Should we react? Should we remain quiet?

How do we determine which approach might work best?

That’s a conversation worth having, don’t you think?


It’s like the tide; you won’t stop it

Look, let’s face it; once you step into a role as a leader, especially an appointed position, you’ll face criticism. Without any doubt whatsoever, it’ll happen. You know it, don’t you?

Despite your best intentions and most devout effort, people will say and write things about you that at best are professionally challenging and at worst are deeply personal in the worst way. You’ll lose sleep over some of that criticism; you can bank on it. Now this newsletter could explore the reasons why others feel the need to react in such ways; but that’s probably a whole other piece for another time. A veritable Pandora’s box that we’ll leave shut…for now. Rather than discuss the antecedents for their behaviour, let’s focus on your reactions as a leader instead, shall we? Great.

This whole dealing with criticism thing, well, it’s a terribly complex problem to explore —largely due to the emotions at play— so let’s introduce a simple critique hierarchy for you to filter criticism through.

That hierarchy? Ignore. Interpret. Investigate.


Ignore - this doesn’t/shouldn’t matter to me

Put simply, if the criticism comes from someone outside your circle of influence, e.g. they have no direct relationship with you, nor are they a peer or mentor of yours; my strongest advice would be to ignore it. You’re a leader and it’s not your role to win a popularity contest. Capisci?

Just delete it immediately from your inbox. Politely but firmly hang up the phone. Block them on social media. Turn off the chatter and don’t buy into it.***

Now some might suggest that such immediate deletion from your consciousness could be running away from an issue, but they’d be wrong. I’d argue it’s simply setting up important boundaries. Dr Brene Brown (who I believe is truly a voice of our times) suggests that some of the most compelling data she’s uncovered about vulnerability and shame in leaders led her to an irrefutable conclusion: the most compassionate and trust-engendering leaders are the ones who establish clear boundaries. In basic terms, they determine what’s OK and what’s not OK and hold themselves and others to it.

By not setting these type of boundaries —who to listen to and who to ignore— we effectively let the world set our boundaries for us.

So, stuff ‘em. Turn them off and in doing so, turn off the noise in your head. (Even better if you have the most incredible Executive Assistant in the whole world, Tracy, to do it for you :)


Interpret - to dig a little deeper (and then choose your action)

There are going to be times when simply ignoring criticism isn't going to work for you; in fact, it’ll actually do the situation more harm.

But rather than move directly into action (based on the criticism) you need a middle step, otherwise you can find yourself just reacting to anything and everything— sometimes you’ll need to interpret the criticism to see what underlying drivers are at play.

The truth is not many people are skilled in giving good critique. In fact, most suck at it. Just awful. As a consequence, the data they are trying to provide you may be well-intended but it’s often skewed or inaccurate.

To interpret criticism well, a crucial first step is to ask a question. Sounds ridiculously simple, right? And it is, but far too many people tend to engage by heading down a process of justification and explanation; and that’s a mistake.

As a leader, your job isn’t to constantly justify your decisions or choices, but rather, have people understand them better while leaving a window available for change if you have indeed, stuffed up. By refraining from justification — which is just continuing a narrative that isn’t working — and asking a question, we get a chance to understand where any confusion or miscommunication might have taken place.

Typically, the times you’ll decide to choose interpret rather than ignore will be when there is an existing relationshipthat needs to continue in some way, shape or form. You’ll need to see and work with this person again, or require their services or custom. It could be an internal stakeholder or a customer, perhaps a peer at work in another department.

Dig a little deeper — by asking good questions — to gain an understanding of whether you either choose to take action based on the criticism or move on from it. Got it? Awesome.

So, our last option is to react to criticism, but possibly not in the way you might think.


Investigate - make a change or enter the conversation

Our third stage in the hierarchy of processing criticism is when someone close to you; be they a trusted colleague or mentor, a long-term customer, one of your direct reports, or your boss; gives you criticism. What do we do in this situation? Good question; I’d suggest you investigate.

Make no mistake, this is your problem. If it’s someone in your inner-circle giving you this critique, you’ve undoubtedly played a role in the environment to this point and you need to change the dynamic in some way.

I should clarify this though; you need to change the approach, not necessarily the decision.

If the source of the critique is close to you and there’s a deep relationship that exists that needs to continue, you need to shift the focus off them (as we would in interpret) and in the early instance put the focus squarely on ourselves. What could I have done differently? How could I have managed this message better? How can I explain context from a different angle to help them understand? You’re 100% responsible for your own actions. Sure, they are also 100% responsible for their actions too, but again, if they’re close to you, you need to take ownership of what you have complete control over: your own actions.

The problem is if you don’t show discernible effort to either make a change in your own behaviour, explain things another way (which is a change of behaviour) or enter the conversation deeper, then you’ll be seen— by the closest people around you —  as a leader who is closed and indifferent. Not a good platform for future engagement.

So, how do these three steps look in real, understandable terms?

Ignore: I don’t look at it. Delete it from your space.

Interpret: I ask questions to then make a decision to act (or not)

Investigate. Where could I do it better? (and in doing so strengthen the relationship)

Hope this helps you as you lead your teams in 2017.


Alf veeter sayin



*Look, I could easily write thousands upon thousands of words on why Trump is a disaster on so many levels but I guess time will tell just how big a catastrophe we’ll see unfold. We could also list Meryl Streep’s list of awards and achievements providing a compelling case that she is in fact, not overrated, but arguably the finest actor of her generation, male or female. But I’ll settle for this little footnote to give you a pretty good idea where my thoughts on this lie.

** I can’t imagine Mandela, Gandhi, MLK, Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama (or any other great leader) getting into a slanging match on Twitter can you? It just seems so reactionary for someone in such a position of authority. What if Trumpy had tweeted “Congrats to Meryl on her award at the Golden Globes. Perhaps we could meet to discuss how we can both make the US a better place for all. My door is open to someone of such influence.” That sounds like a leader worth following doesn’t it? BTW I know he would’ve had to split that over two tweets —140 characters ’n all.

***I’m the first person to put my hand up to say I’ve engaged in good slanging matches on Twitter, Facey and the like. It’s one of my best/worst skills and I enjoy the sparring…but if I’m in a leadership capacity, then the vast majority of the time I realise to best to stay above it. No matter how much you see it as ‘sport’. (I’m also writing this as a reminder to myself).)

º BTW, if you’re a person that just loses their mind over someone suggesting Trump pulled the wrong move with the whole Twitter thingo, or you wanna rant about left or right, or that Streep is an elitist blah blah…rather than have an intelligent conversation about leadership, then please save both you and me a bunch of time by not writing a vitriolic email to me. Actually, I guess you can if you really want, it’s just I won’t read it. I promise you I’ll follow the themes of this piece and just ignore it. Seriously. I’m like greased lightning on the delete key these days. Ninja-like even. Granted, a Ninja that ate way too much Christmas cake and beer, but still pretty damn fast. So, if you’re a bit worked up, best to just go shout loudly at a brick wall. You’ll get a better response. And unsubscribing is always a good option if none of this sits well with you. Again, probably best for both of us, and I wish you a genuine and heartfelt farewell and good luck in all life has to offer you and those close to you. Big love. 

If on the other hand you loved what I’ve mused on, then feel free to put it up on your fave social media channel or send it onto a mate. Sharing is caring, y’all.