“Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk. . .I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” Martin Luther King Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
In one of my leadership positions of the past I received an anonymous letter that was nothing but criticism. My boss at the time told me that his approach to all anonymous letters was to burn them. He would be happy to sit down with anyone, but had no room or time for hyper-critical letters to which he could not respond. I thought he was kidding until I walked into the office one Sunday morning to the smell of smoke. Sure enough, he was in the kitchen burning a letter in the sink.
At the time I thought the practice of burning anonymous letters strange, after a little over 10 years of leadership experience I find it less so now. I don’t personally burn these types of letters, but I do get the appeal. Every leader must learn how to deal with criticism and I feel that the quote from MLK gives some incredible, wise, and biblical advise.
First, most criticism should go unanswered. By unanswered I mean unresponded-to, but that’s not really a word. Answering criticism in the moment will almost never produce good fruit. Consider Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, how often did he answer criticisms? And when he did, it was usually indirectly in a way that was designed to address the real issues rather than the criticism. Even in Jesus’ ministry, how many of his critics turned around and followed? There were doubters who came to Jesus certainly, but of the critics, those who verbally criticized Jesus, very few came around.
Second, there IS a time to answer criticism, it is when it comes from men (and women) “of genuine goodwill [with] criticisms sincerely set forth.” There will be people in your life, in your leadership, who will bring to you criticism but do so genuinely desiring that you should accomplish the mission and be a great leader, these people you can and when possible should answer. But you must do so with patients and wisdom. Several of the disciples also criticized Jesus, if not with words through their actions, and these he most certainly answered.
Jesus was not afraid to address criticism and as a leader you shouldn’t be either. But you also…should not, need not, cannot…answer every criticism that comes your way.