Loving Critics: The Importance of Feedback

Jim Kouzes

The late John Gardner, leadership scholar and presidential advisor, once remarked, "Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers." I'm quite taken by this observation. It should be on a poster that hangs over every leader's desk-or a screen saver on their computers-and it should be read and contemplated several times a day.

None of us likes to hear the constant screeching of the harpies who have only foul things to say. At the same time, we never benefit from, nor truly believe, the sycophants whose flattery is so obviously aimed at gaining favor. To stay honest with ourselves, what we really need are "loving critics"-people who care deeply enough to give us honest feedback about how we're doing.

According to research Barry Posner and I have conducted over the years, credibility is at the foundation of leadership. From a behavioral perspective, credibility is about "doing what you say you will do." But how can you do what you say if you don't know how you're doing? If you never ask for feedback on your behavior and on how your behavior affects how others are doing, how can you really expect to align your words and your actions over the long haul?

There's solid evidence that the best leaders are highly attuned to what's going on inside of them as they are leading, as well as what's going on with others. They're very self-aware and they're very socially aware. They can tell in short order whether they've done something that has enabled someone to perform at a higher level or whether they've sent motivation heading south.

Setting up a system for getting regular feedback (the equivalent of the dashboard) and paying attention to that feedback will help a leader more effectively move the organization forward. All leaders want to have a positive impact on performance. It's part of their legacy. The only way they can know if they're having the desired impact is to get regular feedback on how they're doing.

In addition to the annual 360-degree assessment, try this the next time you're in a meeting. Begin by asking, "How am I doing?" More than likely you'll be greeted with stunned silence—a sure sign folks are not used to being asked this question by you (or anyone else) and are uncomfortable in responding. But if you wait long enough some brave soul may venture an honest response. When she or he does, immediately recognize him or her for showing some courage, and tell the rest of the group, "That's what we need more of around here. More loving critics."

Jim Kouzes is a highly regarded leadership scholar, experienced executive, and coauthor (with Barry Posner) of The Leadership Challenge. He also is Dean's Executive Professor of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University and has been cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S.

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