There is an old business proverb that says, “If no one is criticizing your leadership, you’re not leading correctly.” But, expecting criticism does not prepare us, as leaders, to respond to it. Is there a best practice model we could follow? And where can we look to find an example of this model in action?
History remembers Eisenhower as the president who ended the Korean War, sponsored and signed both the Federal Aid Highway Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (the first federal civil rights legislation passed by Congress since 1875), who balanced the federal budget three times, and who kept the American people safe through the Cold War crises of Korea, Vietnam, Formosa, Suez, Hungary, Berlin and the U-2 incident. Despite these successes, however, Eisenhower had his share of critics. He also had a remarkably effective two-step response protocol we can emulate: validate the critics’ right to criticize, then enlist them as allies.
When Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander over the pending European invasion during WWII, he already had vast experience dealing with unfairly critical newspaper journalists. Thousands of miles from action, and seeking to drive sales, journalists would oversimplify complex maneuvers, sensationalize minor events, and lay the blame for failures squarely at Eisenhower’s feet. “In the stories that began to circulate about me,” Eisenhower said of his wartime dealings with the press, “I should have seen the ample warning that the printed word is not always the whole truth.”
Eisenhower recognized that his new role as the public face of the war effort in Europe could be made exponentially easier or more difficult by the press, and on Monday, January 17, 1944, he put his two-step method into action. “Basically, and fundamentally,” he told the group of 50 war correspondents, “public opinion wins wars.” Speaking casually from behind a desk flanked by both British and American flags, Eisenhower validated the correspondents’ right to criticize him to their readers, saying, “…there is one thing that will never be censored in my headquarters—any criticism you have to make of me. That will never be censored, you can be sure.” Then he enlisted them as allies: “I take it you are just as anxious to win this war and get it done so we can all go fishing as I am… we are partners in a great job of defending the Axis. You have your job, and I have mine…” While Eisenhower’s tenure as Supreme Allied Commander wasn’t free of criticism from the press, it was marked by respect and a congenial give-and-take not enjoyed by many in wartime leadership positions.
But what of the less public criticisms Eisenhower received? (After all, not many of us become the target of newspaper journalists.) Eisenhower’s method remained the same: validate the critics’ right to criticize, then enlist them as allies. During the same timeframe as the above-referenced press conference, Eisenhower received a letter from a private British citizen, John Burn, criticizing his appointment as SHAEF commander. He responded in true Eisenhower style.
The next time you’re faced with criticism—whether fair or unfair—try responding as Eisenhower did. While our natural inclination is to defend our actions and decisions, we have much more to gain from making an ally than we do from making a point.
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