I was shocked as I sat in the living room of my jungle house and listened to my colleague, saying things about my husband that could not possibly be true. I kept thinking, “Where is she coming from? What on earth has she seen?” I listened quietly for half an hour to her emotional criticism, puzzling all the while. Finally, I figured out that she meant someone else, with the same name as my husband. I felt I had passed a test of some sort, to listen to her pour out her story without getting defensive–and I was deeply grateful that MY husband would NEVER do the things she was upset about!

When we love someone, it is painful to hear others criticize him or her. We dread hearing anything negative about our children, our spouses, our close friends. Yet, learning to handle such situations without defensiveness is a stretching and maturing process.

Perhaps your husband has been elected or appointed field director. At first you both feel the flush of recognition, and your self-esteem moves up a notch because of all the fine qualities and competencies attributed to him. People must believe in him! They recognize his reliability and appreciate his sense of responsibility, and are entrusting him with even more decisions that relate to their lives. It’s a nice feeling for both of you. For a while. But then…

Why, why, why do these criticize this nice man? He’s doing the best he can!

One reality that comes unbidden with the turf of leadership, whether your husband seeks to be a leader or only reluctantly agrees to it, is the matter of criticism. It can be a source of great suffering, or it can become a gift. It all depends on how you both learn to see it.

Being a leader guarantees that your spouse can’t please everyone. The sooner you and your husband accept this, the more likely that you won’t get crushed by the criticism which is coming. Let’s look at factors that bring about criticism of leaders, and see how you can turn a potential life-crusher into a gift for your family’s development.

1. Few trained leaders: In the world of cross-cultural work, we don’t have the luxury of going out to hire leaders based on their resumes or training or the job description at hand. The reality is that we have to choose from within the pool of people God has already brought together into some kind of body. There is often no one specifically trained for leadership roles, at any level. This means that most of us will be asked to do jobs we are not trained for, and thus we are going to make mistakes. That’s a given. Your husband may welcome the chance to learn and grow, or reluctantly shoulder the burden which leadership brings. Either way, it is a challenge to his personal and professional growth.

2. Personality and personal history factors: Leaders decide and govern based on their past experience and personality type or style. Just as our ideals, values and habits relating to marriage, parenting, and friendship are shaped by the past, so too our understanding of leadership. It’s unlikely that everyone will respond to or draw from the leader the same traits, qualities, opinions, etc. Thus a leader looks different to and is experienced differently by different people.

Since a leader to one person’s liking may not suit another, we have to learn to differentiate criticisms of our husband’s style from his effectiveness, evaluating effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) not on personal style but on some more concrete measure. For example, my supervisor Jim was very much like my husband Larry in personality and style. Thus, I was very comfortable with his coaching, mentoring, collegial style. Others perceived those strengths (my perception) as not being decisive enough–they wanted a more top-down kind of leader to tell them clearly what to do. I consider him a great leader; I liked his style, and it fit me. But others see him differently, based on their different values and needs. Keep in mind that criticism is usually based subjectively in the other person’s assumptions and experience, rather than on some objective measure of what a leader actually does.

3. Lack of leadership knowledge and skills: Because most leaders are learning “by the seat of their pants” or through OTJ (on the job training) they learn as they go. Learning always means making mistakes, which of course, “followers” don’t take kindly to, especially if their life or job is involved. If we can help our husbands retain an open dialogue as leader with team members, we can both grow, and help each other learn. We can help our spouses and other leaders grow through our open, responsive dialogue, or help them shrivel through our response to criticisms of them. It’s a two way relationship. We help our spouses as leaders if we dialogue, using appropriate assertiveness to educate him about his gifts, limits, needs, motivations, etc. Our words hold the power for life and death, as James tells us in his epistle. I’ve seen leaders die under criticism, and I have seen others thrive by accepting feedback and enhancing their skills.

4. We are all desperate for love and approval: No matter what role our husbands fill, their deepest motivations arise from the universal desire to be liked, accepted, wanted, and loved. They try to get these deep needs met through the “best” ways they have learned. Because they may have learned some lies in their early years about how to get their needs met (such as that they have to be perfect to be loved, or must always be right to be worthy of love), they act out of those beliefs. Think about the deep messages our spouses may carry which determine their attitudes and approaches to others. We can help our husbands uncover these by thoughtfully observing and identifying his patterns of behavior and thought. Are these based on God’s truth or some hidden message based in a lie somehow inadvertently learned in childhood?

We can model to others how to be proactive in affirming and appreciating our husbands as leaders, giving feedback on all that’s good. In this way we will help to meet our husband’s needs, so they are less likely to meet them in an unhealthy way. (Steph: Not sure what to do with this last sentence. Doesn’t quite fit with the other changes.)

What to do when criticism strikes:

1. Differentiate your spouse’s role as leader from your relationship as husband and wife. Try not to assume he is behaving the same in both roles, or that the same behavior is equally effective in both roles. A loving, tender, quiet husband who gives you just the response you need as a spouse may not meet the need of someone looking for a leader who is decisive, directive, and so on. Don’t buy into others’ negative comments and criticisms in any way that diminishes your role as a spouse. He will need your support, understanding, and love. When someone offers criticism of your spouse, always ask, “Have you talked with him about this? I encourage you to talk directly, rather than to me. You can work it out much better that way.”

2. Keep confidences! Your spouse needs to be able to “unload” his frustrations and know you will keep it all in strict confidence! Don’t repeat anything said in your private conversations! Decide what the limits of confidentiality are between you. For example, with my husband being a physician and me being a counselor, we agree not to tell each other anyone’s secrets. (So during our years on a cross-cultural center I was usually the last woman to know who was pregnant!) We tell our struggles, but not the details of someone else’s story. Steph: This par. mixes three kinds of confidences. If your husband “unloads” about a team member, that’s a confidence not to be repeated; but if a team member comes to the wife and “in confidence” criticizes her husband, should that be left unrevealed? Third are personal confidences revealed by someone the husband or wife is ministering to (like being pregnant), which are unrelated to the focus of this article (criticisms of leaders). Not sure what to do with it.

3. Limit confidential sharing. This helps us not take up each others’ grievances inappropriately. My problem with a person stays my problem–it doesn’t become Larry’s problem with a person. Don’t “campaign” to get people on your spouse’s “side.” Try to be objective in your listening and feedback.

4. Give feedback that helps to sort out the issue. Through attentive listening and good questions you can help your spouse figure out what is wanted and needed in the leadership role, and identify style issues (vs. substance issues). You can encourage skill and knowledge development to help him grow.

5. Challenge your spouse to grow when there is some truth in the criticisms. For example, if people criticize your spouse for being too quick to decide, help figure out to what degree that is true, and what the causes might be. Then, by encouraging skill and attitude changes you can use the criticism as a gift to promote growth.

6. Encourage your spouse to invite feedback–to be proactive! Though this seems very risky and scary at first, he can grow enormously through inviting feedback about his performance and other people’s expectation for him. If he asks a team member to help him grow, and to point out what he can do better, it takes the sting out of criticism. It is a proactive approach, based on the knowledge that he is human and will always have room to grow. It assumes team members have a valuable gift to give him–their experience of him, their perceptions of him. It helps him know what to do more of (the positives) and what to diminish (the negatives). This is how he can learn about and overcome his blind spots. When I learned to do this as a teacher and counselor, my growth shot ahead. Instead of living in dread of criticism, I asked for it so I could improve. To be fair to myself, I also learned to ask, “What is most helpful to you?” and “What do you like that I should do more of?” That gave me positive feedback as well as ideas for improvement.

7. Encourage the biblical commandment that authority is for building up, not for achieving one’s own aims. In II Corinthian 10:8 Paul tells us that authority is God given, for the purpose of building others, rather than destroying them. Thus, your husband can see his leadership opportunities as a mandate to encourage the growth of others through the ways he interacts with them. A servant leader, as Jesus modeled for us, enriches and enables others to become more successful. If your husband sees leadership as a chance to exercise power over others in order to make himself successful, he will easily fall prey to many temptations.

What’s the gift?

You can truly make criticism a gift in your life, for your spouse and for yourself. By helping your husband to welcome it as an opportunity to see himself and his behavior through someone’s else “eyes” (shaped by their past experience, expectations, needs, and so on), you both gain a valuable perspective. Together, you can then sort out what is true, realistic, and appropriate. Your husband can change if that is the helpful thing to do, given everyone’s needs, or change his style in relating to that one person. You can suggest gentle feedback he can give to others to reveal their assumptions, projections, attitudes and so on. For example, you might encourage your spouse to say to a critical person: “I understand you don’t think I am doing what you want me to do. Can you describe exactly what you think you need from me?” Such a dialogue can bring conflicts and misunderstandings out into the open, and both persons can grow.

Though criticism hurts, and at times even devastates us–perhaps even more so when it’s of a loved one rather than ourselves–we can make it a friend. It reveals at least as much about the giver as the receiver, and often more about the first. What do you learn about another person’s wounds, hurts, needs through his or her means of criticizing and the words she or he chooses? What do you learn through the things that person chooses to criticize? You become much wiser by listening to people and not defending your spouse when the criticisms come. You can even learn to say, “Thank you for telling me this.” Criticism can help you sharpen your understanding of your husband’s leadership, so that you can best help him assess his habitual ways of interacting. Make the most of it! It an expensive gift to waste!


©2003 Thrive

View the original print magazine where this article was first published.