How Most Leaders Blow Their Biggest Learning Opportunity

It happens almost every day.

Most leaders—even seasoned ones—blow the biggest learning opportunity that comes their way in a day.

Instead of seizing it, they dismiss it, defend it and think they’ve won.

But they’ve lost. Massively.

Here’s how.

defensiveness in leadership

How Do You React with THIS Happens?

The biggest learning opportunity you and I have every day has little to do with the courses we take, books we read (or even blogs we follow).

It has to do with the criticism and ‘feedback’ that comes our way.

So here’s the question.

When someone sends feedback or criticism your way, how do you react? 

Your reaction 100% determines whether you will seize this as a learning opportunity, or whether you will blow it.

Most leaders never master this. They blow it.

Here’s how.

If you’re like most people who walk this planet, you get defensive. It happens at an almost instinctive level.

Keep doing that, and almost every day you’ll blow your greatest learning opportunity.

Or change that, and become a far better leader. Because the great leaders have figured out how to turn criticism into incredible personal growth.

Here’s how it works.


5 Ways to Blow Your Greatest Opportunity

The leaders who never learn to seize this great learning moment handle criticism one of 5 ways.

I’ve been guilty of all five. I’ll bet you have too.

Faced with crticism, pushback or unwelcome feedback, they:

1. Dismiss it

It’s easy to do. Just tell yourself the critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Or say they don’t understand you or the situation. Or be arrogant enough (or insecure enough) to write off their claim.

2. Offer excuses

It’s easy to blame traffic, a bad wifi connection, the dynamics of the meeting, your crazy schedule, another team mate and move on thinking you’ve won. Weak leaders blame. Great leaders take responsibility.

3. Come up with justifications

This one’s more subtle than blame, but it’s just as deadly. The human mind can come up with 1000 reasons to justify a lack of progress. If you’re trying to lose weight, you convince yourself your genes are working against you. If you are late on a report, you tell yourself (and others) that no human could have gotten it done.

Go ahead and live within your neatly constructed universe of justifications. But you will stop growing.

4. Move on too quickly

Some leaders might want to learn and they might even listen for a few minutes, but they are so uncomfortable they want to finish the conversation. They move on too quickly. Had you really let it sink it and worked through the dynamics, you might have grown. But you didn’t.

5. Take it too personally

I used to take all criticism personally, and still lean in that direction. But it’s a deadly mistake. And actually an ironic mistake.

When you take things too personally you end up thinking “I’m a failure” or “I’ll never get this right” and so you dismiss the criticism and move on. It hurts too much. Ironically, dismissing, justifying, making excuses and moving on too quickly means you actually might never get this right. Stay in the pain a bit longer, and you might actually grow.


5 Ways to Seize Your Biggest Opportunity

1. Be open

This is not easy. But it’s worth it.

I still have to talk myself off the edge of a cliff when people are ready to let me hear what they think. But I tell myself “Be open. You can learn. Honour them. There’s at least some truth in this. God will use this to grow you.”

Whatever you need to do to be open, do it.

2. Listen

You will come up with excuses and justifications in real time as your critic is talking. Push the defenses aside.

Just listen. Look the person in the eye. Soak it in.

This is where your critic can become your ally. Ask more questions.

Ask them what you think would help you avoid this next time.

Ask them specifically what was unhelpful to them.

Ask them if there’s anything else they’d like to say.

Listen. Really listen. And look for even a shred of truth that might be there.

3. Be thankful

Seriously. Thank the person who spoke or wrote to you. Even if you don’t agree with 90%, thank them for being willing to talk to you and acknowledge that you’re grateful to get an opportunity to address this.

And give thanks to God. He disciplines those he loves. Remember?

4. Own everything you can

There will almost always be truth in it. Own everything you can.

Apologize. Blame no one. Accept responsibility for everything you can.

A critical difference between leaders who make progress and those who don’t is a willingness to accept responsibility.

The best leaders accept responsibility. Weak leaders assign blame and offer excuses.

I tell myself almost daily that because I’m the senior leader everything that’s a problem at Connexus is somehow related to my leadership. I don’t enjoy telling myself that. But I have to if I want to lead with all diligence.

5. Implement

Another big difference between great leaders and mediocre leaders is execution.

Figure out what you can do next time to avoid this or make it better. Change your leadership style. 


Maybe Not Overnight, But Over Time You Will See a Huge Difference

For me, this has been a long but rewarding journey.

At first, my openness to criticism was 100% learned behaviour. Now, on my good days, I welcome it as a learning opportunity. My defences have been worn down a bit. And I realize this is a huge opportunity to grow and learn.

On my not so good days, I have to battle all my internal emotions, defensiveness and the excuse-making factory that is my brain to get to a healthy place.

But here’s the promise. Do these things, and you will grow as a leader. Exponentially.

What are you learning about criticism, feedback and growth as a leader? Leave a comment.


  1. Kara M on January 13, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Spot on with some things I’ve been learning and challenging myself in. Just finished an emerging leaders program. One seasoned leader advised us to continue to “challenge our excuses!”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 13, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      Love it. That’s great advice Kara. Good for you for pursuing leadership intentionally.

  2. Jon Wiebe on January 11, 2014 at 3:23 am

    Thanks for the post Carey!
    This has been one of the most important leadership lessons I’ve been learning over the past few years!

  3. Brent Dumler on January 10, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    This is such an important topic, Carey. One that I’ve personally wrestled with in past years. I’ve grown through it, but continue even now. For me, I try to mentally tell myself (while the person is talking to me) that God may be trying to get me attention through this person. This helps me to have a healthier filter to listen through. Doing this also helps me to bring those defenses down from the start.

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