Success Truths: Great Leaders Have Harsh Critics

While we see George Washington as a success, while he was alive, he had his critics. On the day that Washington’s successor, John Adams’ was inaugurated, a newspaper critic wrote about the departing President Washington:

“For the man who is now the source of all the misfortunes of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens, and is no longer possessed of power to multiple evils upon the United States. If there was ever a period of rejoicing, this is the moment.”

There were people in the United States who not only hated George Washington but rejoiced when he was out of office!

Usually, the only time any leader is beloved is when they are dead.

If you're a living, breathing leader, I promise that you're ticking somebody off.

Aristotle says:

“To avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing be nothing.”

As Theodore Roosevelt spoke of in the Man in the Arena, excellent leaders “know great enthusiasms, the great devotions.”

But great leaders also know great critics.

They know the loneliness of seeing their name slandered in the paper. They know what it is like to be misquoted, misjudged, and misinterpreted.

They know what it is like to receive the chicken-hearted typed anonymous letter written by a cold soul who refuses to lead because they won't even sign their name. (One rule for the anonymous letter – throw it away.)

Excellent leaders know what it is like to walk up to a group of people who suddenly go silent. They know betrayal.

While criticism does not mean you're a great leader, if you are a great leader, you will be criticized.

We need more leaders

But let's talk about what else great leaders know — that they make the world a better place. That leadership is hard.

They've long given up being beloved and popular by everyone because they know that leadership usually comes with a price.

In today's world full of likes and loves and neon colored emojis, I don't think we have room for Churchills and Lincolns and perhaps even Billy Grahams.

We don't want the truth, we want to “like” stuff.

But the truth is that some of the greatest leaders tick us off and get us to do what we should do.

  • They tell us that we're wasting our lives whining about our finances while we binge on Netflix when we should be figuring out how to make some extra money to pay off our debts.
  • They tell us to put our phones down and talk to the kids at the supper table.
  • They tell us that it is ok to have your child mad at you when you are the adult because kids are often selfish and don't know that it is good for them to go to bed at 8 o'clock when they are four years old.
  • These are just a few…

Just Because We Have a Strong Opinion Doesn't Mean We're Right

Right now, most people just think the person with integrity is the one who agrees with them. Each person thinks they have a right to their opinion – well, we all have a right to our opinion but that doesn't mean we have a right to be right. We can have a wrong opinion.

Today, I had a student ask me if I thought the world was flat. I said that whether I thought the earth was flat or not was irrelevant — what was the truth? Because the earth is round and whether I believe it to be round or not, it is basically round. In this case, the truth mattered more than my opinion.

And I refuse to get pulled into a mind-numbing hair pulling debate over whether water is wet. I mean, really? Let's solve real problems for a change.

Just because I disbelieve gravity doesn't void gravity. And just because I believe a person is not a great leader doesn't mean that they are not one. And just because I think that debating whether water is wet is a good use of three hours doesn't make it so.

Often in today's world, we major on the minor and minor on the major.

And if we're going to have leaders in this world gone awry, we're going to have to have leaders who are ok with the fact that while they are alive, they will receive harsh criticism. And when they are praised, they won't be there to hear it.

Such is the path of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.

So, don't desire for leadership unless you're willing to pay the price.

But, let me tell you a secret. Ticking people off is a small price to pay for leaving the world a better place when you're gone.

This post is day 50 of 80 days of excellence. I've created an email list below for those of you want to be emailed the full posts written as part of this series.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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RUSS EWELL February 27, 2018 - 10:33 pm

I want to encourage you about writing this post. I have not be on social media as much, but use to follow you regularly, and feel this represents an expansion on your writing subject matter. I really enjoyed it and will share it. Keep at it, this is a great message for leaders. I just began working on something called “Leading Good,” will be spending a year of scholarly research on it, and once again I found your writing compelling…..Russ Ewell

Vicki Davis February 28, 2018 - 10:24 am

Thank you so much, Russ and good luck on your research.

RJ Dake February 28, 2018 - 7:41 am

Deep respect for you and have watched you field criticism with candor and dignity! I was a telementor, an academic mentor, and a consulting teacher for many years. My leadership was often challenged, and a few times I was smeared, the last time ending my career in government. You have often come in and out of my life. I appreciate you! I respect you!

Vicki Davis February 28, 2018 - 10:23 am

Often how we handle criticism shows more about how we lead than anything else. Perhaps that should be a topic on another post!

Joël McLean July 4, 2019 - 7:17 am

Great post Vicki! Most of the people that I know that are miserable most of the time spend their days “majoring on the minors”. Like a hamster in a hamster wheel. And part of being a leader is removing that wheel, so that makes some people uncomfortable. However, without change, there is no growth.

Thanks again!


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere