Keep the Wheat; Let the Chaff Fly
All good leaders want to improve and thus yearn for impartial, constructive feedback. Leaders get feedback almost every minute though most of that feedback is neither impartial nor constructive.
For instance, after I made a decision a team member did not agree with, she might report to me that I did not listen to her. However, I have also discovered that “you did not listen” is often a synonym for “you did not agree with me” or “you did not act as I wish you had.” A leader can listen and not agree, but it is equally true that a leader may believe that she is listening when she truly is not. How can you tell the difference?
Early in my leadership career, when I was running a middle school, the Head of School came to me with a six page letter listing all my deficiencies as a leader, a teacher, a soccer coach, and as a coup de grace, criticizing my sartorial sense. The letter was full of vitriol and the author could find nothing positive to say about me or my performance. The Head suggested I spend the night with the letter, and we would meet the next day to discuss it. As you can imagine I did not sleep well that night.
The next day arrived and the Head started the meeting by reassuring me he thought I was doing a good job and that my dress was perfectly acceptable. He continued that he was trying to uncover the motivation of the writer. While that made me feel much better, the more important advice came next. He advised that when you face a screed like this or any criticism, look for the kernels of truth--the wheat and let the chaff fly away.
This advice had two critical elements: (1) look for truthful nuggets that might help you improve and (2) let all the nonsense fly away and not bother you.
After the letter and this advice, I visited with every other member of the leadership team, explained that I received this feedback and wanted their unvarnished views of my performance. I think I got more honest feedback than I might have otherwise given that I was asking with curiosity and sincerity.
The feedback I got was very helpful and made me a better leader and administrator. Fortunately, I was also able to let the chaff fly away. Perhaps because the letter was so over the top, I did not spend time worrying about what was irrelevant or not seen by trusted advisors. Indeed, often a letter like that is more about the writer than the target.
A leader must have a thick skin but also must be open to change. A hard balance indeed.