Criticizm is easy. Leadership is not.

“Do you understand where you went wrong?” she asked me, eyebrows raised, leaning forward across the desk as if to accentuate her words.

It was the dispiriting question I dreaded. Hearing it rattle and bounce on replay round and round inside my head kept me awake at night. I knew it was coming, most days, but that didn’t make it any easier when it loomed large across the desk at me. Every time it lunged forward like a sword in a fight, I felt a stab of humiliation and rage in equal measure. I’ve never been a fan of martial arts.

My new boss was, for want of a better word, horrible. (Others begin with ‘F’ or ‘B’ and aren’t as polite, so we’ll go with the ‘H’ word.)

Sometimes (but rarely) she had valid points in her critique. Other times (read: most), it was plain, good old simple subjectivity. My problem was, it was always a critique. Life, as we all know, is 20/20 in hindsight. I too could sit and rip a piece of work to pieces, pull apart sentences and stuff the creative bird full of negativity. Criticizm is easy.

Often in job interviews for magazines they ask for a critique of the latest issue. To me, that will always come second to asking for ideas. Why? Because it’s easier to point out what’s ‘wrong’ with something than to come up with something creative, especially under pressure. And because making your staff feel defective can have seriously negative consequences on employee engagement and retainment. In fact, in a recent study by Gallup, 50 per cent of 7,200 adults surveyed said they’d left a job “to get away from their manager,” because as everyone who’s worked under a horrible boss knows, no amount of jobs perks can outweigh the burden of dreading coming face to face with another negative critique of your work every day.

What I wanted to say to my horrible boss when asked the looming question about what I’d done ‘wrong’ was, “Yes, I understand. What would you have done?” But, of course, it’s frowned upon and deemed confrontational to ever put a boss on the spot with such a question. Why is that? It’s a stupid unwritten rule of office etiquette. Being more protected should not come hand in hand with a promotion and a pay-rise.


A true leader would explain what they would have done differently because there are no chinks in their armor. A real leader will go one step further into the actual trenches and show you how it’s done. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.” In other words, don’t tell me, show me.

Simply having a set of clear guidelines to achieve your manager’s idea of ‘success’, and clarifying exactly what that looks like, can make all the difference when it comes to job satisfaction. According to the Gallup report, “Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance.”

In the serenity of a calm, cool office, it is easy to critique. What is not easy is thinking on your feet when you’re in the heat of a deadline. Sure, I could have fine-tuned the piece a little, but did I have time? No. If I could rewrite it would I like to? Yes. Is there any point to shredding my work without constructive takeaways? No. Teach me something, dear leader, so I can do better next time.

Looking at this from the other end of the ladder, it is really important as you tuck promotions under your belt not to forget how draining critiques are. No matter how busy your days become, to maintain your position as an aspirational, inspirational manager you must keep investing in the bank of your talent pool of staff.

The real million dollar, question in this instance, sadly was, “Could you have done better?”

I shall refrain from answering and by my silence, say it all.

A real boss won’t leave you in any doubt that they could have done better. They don’t sit back in their office away from the action and hide. The get their fingers dirty on the keyboard when the opportunity arises, fire-fight when necessary, pull a team into action under duress, and guide them to safer waters with ease.

Yes, it’s the hard way to lead. What you want is for your staff to bring perfection to your door (possibly with cupcakes) to save you time and energy. But get real. You can’t keep taking withdrawals without injecting funds.

So, my reply to horrible boss should have been, “Dear Boss, before you give me your critique, give me direction. Be so clear, its crystal what you expect. Show me why you’re in the position above me. Then, and only then, am I interested in hearing your feedback.”

Instead, I moved on with a promotion, and a less horrible boss.