There are three words every successful leader is destined to hear.
They represent the nameless, faceless opposition that can distract, depress or demoralize you if you’re not careful. And those three words are:
“People are saying.”
These words follow successful leaders because they are generally the result of movement and change. They are like a sniper’s bullet. Difficult to trace, but impossible to ignore.
To be clear, not all change is good change. That is something I address in my blog The First Thing Every Leader Should Do. The answer is nothing. Do nothing but listen and learn. But after you’ve listened and learned it’s time to move. And when you move there will always be those who are reluctant to move with you or the program.
Unfortunately, few detractors these days seem interested in attaching their names to criticism, especially in the church. So they find ways to make their concerns known to a third party. The infamous “unnamed source.”
Recently I was channel surfing and landed on a lively argument on CNN. They were discussing Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and Europe. A couple of the panelists were arguing that Trump came back depressed, lonely, and angry. They argued with such detail that I was sure that someone had overheard Melania or Ivanka. But then I read the title of the segment, “Unnamed sources: Trump returns lonely, frustrated and angry.”
As much as I dislike the actions of Trump, for me, unnamed sources are no better. Unnamed, unidentified, unethical criticism and rumor are undermining relationships from the statehouse to the church house.
I was discussing the damage of unnamed sources on my Facebook page and someone sent me an interesting link. It was to the National Public Radio Ethics Handbook. As I skimmed through some of their policies concerning anonymous sourcing, fairness, and ethics in communication, it struck me that the church could learn from some of their guidelines. Let’s see how they suggest you should handle critics who would prefer to go unnamed.
If you don’t have a name, you don’t have a story.
That’s generally the approach you should take when people approach you with information they don’t want to attach a name to. Now, some situations are too volatile or even too dangerous to reveal names. Whistleblowers perform a valuable function in certain environments. But as a rule, criticism should be addressed directly. If a source is not willing to go on the record there is possibly something flawed about the information, the motivation, the timing, or the source.
Determine if the source is reliable and knowledgeable.
Some people are just messy. Their history confirms that they are neither reliable nor knowledgeable. You can pretty much predict that where there’s trouble, they will be involved. Criticism and gossip are practically a sport to them. They gravitate toward controversy like a moth to a flame. Don’t allow yourself to be inadvertently triangulated into their “sport.”
Press the source hard.
This counsel from the ethics manual was interesting. In essence it encourages you to stop the foolishness before it starts. Encourage the critic to drop the matter if that is possible. If they refuse, press them to voice their criticism directly and privately. Sounds like Matthew 18 to me.
Remember online sources should be on the record too.
Marriages, reputations, and careers are being destroyed in seconds by online assassins. And even if the attackers regret their words, the words remain for all to see, for generations to come.
Now that was some counsel from the National Public Radio ethics guide on ethics in communication. But I have a better source, a higher authority. The Bible provides a wealth of counsel on how to criticize correctly.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” (James 4:11)
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph.4:31-32)
Let me add my two cents
1. Study Matthew 18.
2. Know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
3. Make sure you pick the right time and place.
4. Make sure that you are the right person.
5. Be specific.
6. Focus on the behavior and not the person.
7. Know when to stop.
Oh yeah, this stuff is a lot easier said than done. But it’s well worth the effort.
Jesse Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Oakwood University and the Director of PELC