Most of us talk a good game about being open to feedback — until we get some. It isn’t just developing professionals. I have known executives with a ton of experience, people who have been coached for years, who still bristle and get defensive when the scene changes and the truth comes out.
It’s only natural, in a way. We invest a lot in our professional identities. Some people market being open to feedback as part of their brand and still can’t receive it gracefully. It’s hard stuff.
I think there are basically three types of leaders. 1) Those, who in full knowledge of their flaws, are broken by it and can no longer lead. 2) Those, who in full knowledge of their flaws, are broken by it and can never own up to them. 3) Those, who in full knowledge of their flaws, summon the courage and resolve to persevere forward anyway … finding healing for themselves and planting redemption in the culture around them.
Type 1 leaders hear the inevitable criticisms that come with decision-making jobs, but my observation is that external feedback is not what ultimately breaks them. We are all required to participate in our demise or triumph. Any leader worth their salt is going to know they don’t get it right all the time, that they’re flawed and no more worthy of leadership than anyone else.
So, as the mind constantly cycles through its convictions and self-criticisms, it can form a malignant alignment with forces of doubt cast from without. Too often, this spirals into a doom loop, and the prophecy becomes ultimately fulfilled. The emperor has no clothes, knows it, and flees the weight of truth.
Type 2 leaders hear the same inevitable criticisms and also know they don’t get it right all the time. But that knowledge is too much for them to stand. They put on a toxic air of infallibility and bring chaos to the world around them. These are the most dangerous leaders of all. They never get the benefit of learning from their mistakes, uncovering the truths of criticism, or discovering the grace around them through their flaws.
They are feared (sometimes hated) by their inner circle, never develop enduring teams, and leave a string of broken people and relationships in their wake. The emperor has no clothes, knows it, and responds through tyranny.
Type 3 leaders also know and understand their flaws. But they summon the will to do the hard work of listening to the feedback and critiques of others. Through a combination of perseverance, mentorship, courage, self-belief and fearless moral inquiry, they come to see their flaws as common to the human and leadership experience. Recognizing and even finding truth in criticism becomes an instrument of redemptive response to the world.
They seek to adapt their behaviors to make their leadership more rational and responsive to the world around them. The emperor has no clothes, knows it, knows no one else has clothes on either, and becomes more sympathetic toward themselves and others for that very reason. Feedback. Get some.
Daniel Flowers is president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank