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The Inevitable Truth: Not Everyone Will Approve of Your Leadership

Vince Lombardi, renowned NFL coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said "Leaders are not born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work." As a new leader finding your way, it is important to understand that achieving excellence comes with adversity. While striving for success and positive change, you will inevitably encounter resistance and disapproval.

Today we will explore research into effective leadership and the inevitability of facing criticism, providing practical strategies and industry examples for managing dissent while staying focused on your mission and vision.

Understanding Effective Leadership

A wealth of leadership research identifies common characteristics of successful leaders. Kouzes and Posner's seminal work The Leadership Challenge outlines five practices exemplified by admired leaders: modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. Similarly, transformational leadership theory emphasizes inspiring and motivating followers through ideals, goals and vision, not control or authority (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Effective leaders demonstrate integrity and competence while inspiring commitment to a higher purpose (Brown & Treviño, 2006; Jondle et al. 2013).

Emerging as an authentic, ethical leader involves self-awareness, continuous learning and supporting others to reach their highest potential (George, 2003). Still, not everyone will respond positively or mirror the leader's enthusiasm, due to differing viewpoints, interests and stages of readiness for change. Research confirms that transformational leaders can expect both support and resistance as they challenge status quo thinking and behaviors (Kuyvenhoven & Buss, 2011). Effective management of inevitable dissent requires understanding catalysts for criticism and implementing strategies to address concerns constructively while staying focused on goals.

Expect Criticism as a Catalyst for Positive Change

Leaders driving organizational progress and higher standards should anticipate dissent. Any shift from familiar routines provokes discomfort and skepticism that may manifest as criticism (Kotter, 1996). Even well-intentioned changes intended to benefit followers can be perceived as threatening established norms, traditions or power structures (Ford & Ford, 1995). Further, individual readiness for change varies based on factors like tolerance for ambiguity, previous experience and situational constraints (Oreg, 2006). Recognizing criticism as a natural byproduct of transformation enables effective leaders to address it productively instead of taking opposition personally.

Common Catalysts for Criticism of Leadership

Certain leadership actions and approaches tend to catalyze criticism more than others:

  • Challenging the status quo. Questioning long-held assumptions, policies or power dynamics threatens some people's interests or worldviews (Kotter, 1996).

  • Raising performance standards. Higher expectations mean more effort and accountability, which some may resist as they adjust (Kotter, 1996).

  • Initiating structural changes. Shifting reporting relationships, budgets or key roles disrupts routines and familiar ground (Kotter, 1996).

  • Communicating a vision for change. Not all share the same ideals or readiness to embrace a proposed future state (Armenakis & Bedeian, 1999).

  • Pushing decisions down the hierarchy. Distributed leadership empowers others but decentralizes authority for some (Kotter, 1996).

  • Prioritizing intangible goals. Metrics like culture, continuous learning or social impact lack definitive measures of success, inviting skepticism (George, 2003).

While criticism stems from rational motives like differing viewpoints, recognizing these common triggers equips leaders to address likely friction points proactively through open communication and inclusion.

Address Criticism with Clarity, empathy and Inclusion

Rather than reacting defensively to criticism, effective leaders turn resistance into a learning opportunity through transparent engagement. Focusing inward to understand concerns from others' perspectives builds trust and commitment to shared goals. Specific strategies include:

  • Clarify rationale and invite feedback: Explain the "why" behind decisions to provide needed context rarely apparent to external observers. Admit imperfect knowledge and ongoing learning. Communicate desire for constructive input to fine-tune approaches versus reacting hostilely to opinions. For example, a healthcare CEO spearheading EHR implementation met individually with clinicians to explain value-based care drivers and collect suggestions on workflow enhancements.

  • Acknowledge emotions and show empathy: Criticism often stems from unsettled emotions like anxiety over future uncertainty, anger at loss of control or sadness from changing relationships (Ford & Ford, 1995). Validate how the change impacts people to diffuse defensiveness. Connecting on a human level through active listening builds goodwill. For instance, an engineering VP facing fears of outsourcing reassured staff of their intrinsic value beyond tasks and long-term career support.

  • Engage diverse perspectives inclusively: Invite candid yet respectful discussion from a range of stakeholders including skeptics, not just supporters. Value contrary viewpoints as another lens toward improvement versus as threats (Armenakis & Bedeian, 1999). For example, one retail CEO kickstarted strategic planning with open “town hall” webcasts encouraging questions from any employee globally.

  • Reiterate future vision with patience and optimism: While criticism merits reflection, leaders must remain steadfast in guiding progress according to a compelling vision and values versus reacting erratically (Kotter, 1996). With patience and confidence borne of conviction in an inspiring mission and belief in people’s potential, criticism loses fuel over time (George, 2003). An academic dean weathered complaints to diversity initiatives by re-emphasizing their role in student success and societal impact.

Use Criticism to Strengthen Leadership and Outcomes

Rather than allowing dissent to derail momentum toward positive change, effective leaders channel criticism into opportunities for personal and organizational growth. Specific actions include:

  • Solicit anonymous feedback for self-awareness: Actively seek candid input, including through anonymous methods, to counter unconscious blind spots and habits limiting effectiveness. For instance, one CFO conducting a 360-review became aware of a need to delegate more to develop junior talent.

  • Adjust respectfully based on valid concerns: If certain criticism merits revisiting decisions or approaching, acknowledge humbly and modify tactfully to retain credibility. Rapidly dismissing all dissent risks alienating supporters too. For example, a factory director slowed a new quality process after data showed minority worker concerns accurately predicted problems.

  • Empower followers through transparency: Share how criticism shaped adjustments to demonstrate valuing diverse voices equally. People commit more enthusiastically when leadership is transparent and humility invites partnership over obedience (George, 2003). For instance, one hospital CEO publicly credited a nurse's idea for streamlining shift handoffs with improving patient outcomes.

  • Rally renewed momentum from small wins: By addressing concerns and fine-tuning approaches based on feedback, solutions improve faster to build confidence in leadership through tangible results. Celebrate progress transparently to renew excitement around a still compelling mission. For instance, a sales VP faced complaints yet improved dealer support processes, triggering record quarterly bookings lifting morale.

Conclusion: Expect and Embrace Resistance as a Leader

Any leader effecting meaningful progress should expect criticism as an inevitable part of that journey. Rather than reacting defensively, effective leaders view dissent through empathetic, learning-oriented lenses. They engage critics transparently to understand concerns, adjust respectfully where valid, and channel feedback into continuous improvement. With patience and optimism grounded in strong principles, leaders weather short-term criticism and emerge stronger - as do the solutions, culture and outcomes they cultivate. While not everyone may like or initially support bold leadership driving positive change, those who embrace criticism constructively gain dedicated followers committed to shared success.


  • Armenakis, A. A., & Bedeian, A. G. (1999). Organizational change: A review of theory and research in the 1990s. Journal of Management, 25(3), 293–315.

  • Bass, B. M., & Steidlmeier, P. (1999). Ethics, character, and authentic transformational leadership behavior. The Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 181–217.

  • Brown, M. E., & Treviño, L. K. (2006). Ethical leadership: A review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 595–616.

  • Ford, J. D., & Ford, L. W. (1995). The role of conversations in producing intentional change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 541–570.

  • George, B. (2003). Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. Jossey-Bass.

  • Jondle, D., Ardichvili, A., & Mitchell, J. (2013). Modeling ethical business culture: Development of the ethical business culture survey and its use to validate the CEBC model of ethical business culture. Journal of Business Ethics, 119(1), 29–43.

  • Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Harvard Business Press.

  • Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

  • Kuyvenhoven, R., & Buss, W. C. (2011). A normative model of effective leadership behaviors. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 8(6), 48–56.

  • Oreg, S. (2006). Personality, context, and resistance to organizational change. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(1), 73–101.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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