A Lesson on Criticism from Aristotle

Throughout the recorded history of mankind, humans have been graced with the inspiring words of religious figures, political advocates, philosophers of antiquity, and even modern-day songwriters. Leaders are constantly reciting their favorite quotes that help motivate them to drive their respective organizations. Words of wisdom like “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” from John F. Kennedy, or “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” from Steve Jobs, help to realize the importance of education and innovative thinking.

However, one quote in particular from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle directly cuts to the heart of many leaders’ downfalls – worrying what others may think of them.

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Aristotle

People may constantly be struggling with the questions “Am I accepted in my field?” or “Will people condemn me if I fail?” Fear of rejection and failure is a real issue and a large reason many aren’t effective leaders. Aristotle was instrumental in establishing western views on life, morality, logic, science, and politics. Studying under the elevated philosopher Plato, he went on to serve as the main teacher to Alexander the Great. His views have stood the test of time and have inspired others like him.

Aristotle’s famous words are still applicable to every person aspiring to be a strong and effective leader.  His tongue and cheek manner of commenting on one of mankind’s single most devastating threats to productivity through creativity is an enigma chock-full of truth and wisdom. These three aspects of existing in oneself as well as with others are directly related to how you lead your organization: what to say, to do, and to be.

Say Nothing
Speech is one of the many forms of communication that leaders use. With our tongue, we direct others down uncertain avenues, encourage people around us to be the best possible versions of themselves, and speak out on where we need to go or what ventures not to pursue. By saying nothing, we avoid being criticized on how well we educate and train our staff, our ability to motivate our team members, and the issues we decide to speak out on. Holding your tongue may help you avoid being criticized, but how well will your team succeed in your silence?

Do Nothing
Many live by the idiom “actions speak louder than words.” This mindset is basically a call to stop thinking and talking about what you want or need to do and just be proactive and do it. But, if you step out on a limb with an innovative idea or an off-the-wall plan, you are likely to be criticized at the beginning of the endeavor or, if you fail, after the fact. The problem with being afraid of letting your team down is that you will never know what could have been until you go out on that particular limb. You will never actualize the success if you are stuck on the fence. What is the real failure: stepping out and trying something new and innovative that ultimately underachieves or staying in your comfort zone and not ever attempting to do the impossible?

Be Nothing
Most everyone in a leadership role wants to be a person who inspires and creates an atmosphere of pure excitement and enlightened, productive results. People aspire to be the best they can be, and in a team setting, they want to do their best to not let others around them down. Focusing on what you think other people need or expect you to be leaves you worried about acceptance instead of purpose. True respect is garnered by being an individual who focuses on what’s best for the company and its staff.  Great leaders go against the grain. To be one you need to look at the big picture instead of focusing on complaints about minor decisions.

Is Avoidance Safe?
To fear failure, rejection, and denigration is human.  Overcoming these innate and engrained struggles is the first step in separating yourself from the drones of fear-driven and ineffective leaders. Decide today what type of person you want to be: an innovative, freethinker or a groupthink-driven worrier. The best leaders are fearless and are often criticized.

But, to avoid criticism – say noting, do nothing, be nothing.

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