Don’t Take It Personally

Taking criticism is one of leader’s most exercised skills, perhaps because it is one of the few that he must employ in both good and bad times. Yet while thick hide ought to come with any top job, it is actually not uncommon for many top executives to lose their cool, especially when faced with one particular phenomenon – the fact that everyone always shoots at success.

I can still remember how surprised and incensed such criticism made me 15 years ago when we first came up with the idea for the World Golf Rankings. To me it was an obvious boon to the sport, filling void where just such measurement tool was needed. The rankings proved themselves immediately popular, and were cited frequently in print and television media.

At the same time, however, all kinds of critics popped up. They said that we’d done the ranking simply to be able to skew player statistics to favour our clients; they said we were just trying to promote our company. They kept sniping away until you couldn’t hear the work “rankings” without it being connected to the word “controversial”.

When good work brings bad publicity

So you’ve done good work, and this is your reward: bad publicity, vague or ill-informed accusations, perhaps personal attacks.

What do you do about it? It’s conundrum all of us face, at one time or another – if we are successful and hard-working.

Your first instinct will almost always be the wrong one; that is, to take to the soapbox and loudly denounce your critics for their ignorance and personal agendas. It really doesn’t matter if the critics consist of those people who wish they had thought of your idea first. It doesn’t even matter if they are marketplace competitors. Unfortunately, the only image your forthright, combative response will evoke is one from Central Casting – the generic photo of the beleaguered CEO. Most people in the information-glutted world in which we live won’t take the time to finish the article, if they bother to read beyond the headline and caption. All they will recall is that you must have done something truly bad to deserve such coverage.

This is even truer in an office context, where there is no concept of free press, and dissent is permissible if politically acceptable, and only then if for the good of the company. In corporate environments, the high and mighty fall as readily as the newly minted geniuses. It’s well-known fact that when Henry Ford hired Bunkie Knudson away from Chevrolet, it didn’t matter that Knudson was great leader who had got great results. By putting Knudson, legend in the car business, over Lee Iacocca, Ford was drawing target on his back. When Knudson didn’t bring people with him to cover his flanks, he was guaranteeing his failure in job for which he was perfectly suited. Iacocca’s people surrounded him and, being loyal to Iacocca, they cut Knudson’s feet out from under him.

Setting the record straight

So much for legends. If you are in that precarious position of being perhaps little too successful – and coming under attack for it – you have to rule your emotions with an iron hand. Size up the detractors and make an honest assessment of their criticisms; if there’s small change that might turn down the heat, consider making it swiftly.

To combat the critics, first say nothing. Silence is often the best way to deflect tempest. If the storm does not abate, remember that it is much better to let other people talk about your accomplishments than do it yourself. You won’t appear to be braggart, and it’s more credible. Remember also that if you’re criticised by the press, you can’t ever win – so unless it’s an extreme situation, don’t go out there. Anything they accuse you of will be on the front page, while the correction will always be on page three.

Finally, recall that this is the moment your rivals and enemies have been waiting for, an opening for the thousand critics every author spawns. Don’t give them any more ammunition than that which the usual resentment of success provides.

The consolation is this: How you navigate the shoals of success may in the end have more to do with your staying on top than all you have learned getting to your current peak. That in itself ought to make enduring these trials worthwhile.

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management Group

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