Leadership, Not Criticism

May 31, 1998 · by Scott Simpson, FAIA

How do firms thrive? What does it take to be successful in a constantly changing world? The answer to the question is simple and straightforward — firms thrive because of their people.

How do firms thrive? Why do some grow, and others wither? What does it take to be successful in a constantly changing world? While we may hope for a secret formula, or a foolproof organization chart or a magic key to unlock these mysteries, the truth is that there is no mystery at all. The answer to the question is simple and straightforward — firms thrive because of their people.

A successful firm is a place that attracts and retains talented staff and then provides an environment in which they can do their very best work. Good people love a challenge. They love to learn. They love to work with colleagues who will push them to achieve more than they thought they could. How do you go about making sure that your staff is as committed as you are to the success of the firm?

First and foremost, recognize that each and every person comes to work with some kind of talent. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there!) As a leader, it is your job to unlock that talent and get it into gear. To do this, you need to be candid with your employees about how they can contribute to the organization and how you see their growth potential. More importantly, you need to be honest with yourself. It is not unusual for senior management to have an inflated self-image and subscribe to the notion that “nobody can do it as well as I can.” While this might be true in isolated cases, it should also be a strong signal that you need to find and train somebody who can do a particular task better, faster or cheaper than you can. Why? Leverage. Don’t waste your time doing things that can be delegated — instead, find a way of training and promoting your people, and helping them to grow.

When you delegate, mistakes will be made — that’s the nature of the learning process. Don’t fret—just get on with it. Remember that you can delegate authority but not responsibility. If something goes wrong, you are on the hook. But don’t let this stop you. Delegation most often goes awry when the subordinate did not clearly understand the task at hand. Another way of saying this is that the delegator—that’s you—failed to make the instructions properly understood.

When you delegate, you are first and foremost a teacher. Because things are never perfect (“perfect” being a self-referential term!), you will be tempted to criticize way too much. “Tom got it done, but he did it late. Mary finished the project, but she blew the budget. Nancy gave the wrong impression to a client. Steve agreed to a change in the field that’s going to cause a problem later on.” And so on.

The first reaction, which is a very human one, is to react critically... “Some- body else got it wrong.” When you react this way, you miss an important opportunity to demonstrate humility—a most powerful teaching tool. Remember that there was a time in your life when you would have gotten it wrong, too...There was a time when you didn’t know much, made stupid mistakes and relied on the help of others to get through the day. So lighten up. Share your failures to make a point. “I remember when this same thing happened to me, and here’s how I handled it...”
Criticism is often used as a weapon--to demonstrate that “I am smarter than you and I want you, and everybody else to know it.” This causes more problems for the critic than he or she realizes. There is an old saying that “when you sling mug, all you do is lose ground.” Unjust or excessive criticism only makes the critic look silly, and diminishes his or her credibility. Too much ranting and raving can cause deafness in the audience...and do you really want a leadership style based on intimidation? To keep your credibility high, use your comments to enlighten, not to diminish. And remember to give praise in public, but criticize in private.

Ultimately, if you understand how important your staff is to your success, you’ll use your leadership skills to reinforce continuous learning. You’ll share your knowledge and experience generously. And you’ll be astounded at the reaction. There is no leverage like the leverage of teamwork. A selfish or critical manager style places a chokehold on the organization—it can’t breathe properly—but a truly wise leader takes as much joy in the success of others as in personal success. Know the difference between criticism and leadership. It will determine whether your firm will thrive or merely survive.

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