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Tame your inner critic to be a better leader

December 2, 2014 Susan MacKenty Brady

I’ve been on a bit of an Inner Critic road show as of late.

Last month, I presented at Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute under the guise of “Engaging Fully.” But what I ended up doing was outing something that derails more careers (for both women and men) but simply isn’t talked about at work, ever.

The inner critic.

We all have one with two primary voices. One is critical of ourselves, the other is critical of others. And the way I’ve chosen to tackle these potentially toxic voices is to understand they exist, and “out” them to others. This means I practice “outing” my inner critic in meetings with work colleagues as well as in front of large groups of high-powered managers and leaders.

Being deeply honest and public about my faults, insecurities, and embarrassing judgments takes courage. I work hard to not take myself too seriously, and I purposefully look for the humor to illustrate when my inner critic is running amok in order to bring it alive for people in the audience. I also laugh. A lot. On stage.

My hope is that at the end of 50 minutes, those who are listening can relate and give themselves AND OTHERS a bit of a break. I call this “being gentle with ourselves and others.”

Last week, I gave two of my “inner critic” keynotes, at two different large companies. In total, I “outed” my inner critic to more than 1,500 people. Mostly women.

And this morning, one of these clients sent me some raw feedback—nearly three pages of direct comments about me from participants.

I was grateful to see that there were plenty of “Susan was hilarious” and “I loved Susan’s talk” and “I can totally relate” and “I’m struggling with my own inner critic” comments. But there were also some “helpful tips” in there too, including several from attendees who thought I could have done a better job linking the inner critic to leadership—and why managing the inner critic matters at work.

So, it’s on me to be more clear especially since, among my other responsibilities at Linkage, I’m an executive coach to high-level leaders at a variety of organizations. Usually the leaders I coach make contributions to their organizations that are essential to the success of those businesses, and they are shooting themselves in the foot in some way that’s impacting their ability to lead/engage/inspire/influence others. Simply put, some of the very traits that have made them great are now in their way. Marshall Goldsmith sums it up perfectly in his book: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

The bottom line is this: to be a true high-impact leader, the inner critic must be coached. For example, let’s say Jen is the head of product development for a large company and has a direct report she can’t stand. She thinks Tim is entitled, doesn’t follow processes, doesn’t want to be held accountable, and to top it all, he thinks he’s “all that” in the market he specializes in. It’s gotten so bad that her blood starts to boil before she even opens an email from him.

But the truth is Jen needs Tim. He is in fact “all that” in the highly competitive new market they want to break into, and for Jen (and the organization) to be successful, she needs Tim to be successful. So, in order for Jen to have a productive relationship—i.e. help Tim succeed—she needs to come down from her self-righteous, judgmental, and counterproductive high horse and tame her inner critic that constantly yammers on about how awful Tim is. If she doesn’t, Tim will eventually leave—or worse yet—stay, and Jen will be the one to lose the esteem and support of her colleagues and manager.

The way I coach executives to take their leadership to the next level by taming their inner critic goes something like this: Whenever the stimulus (Tim’s name pops up in her inbox, etc.) occurs, she must take the space (take a breath to “right size” and put the critic in proper perspective) before responding.

I help her realize that she can’t be a constructive leader until she stops judging and criticizing. She can’t be successful as long as her inner critic is running the show! And my job as an executive coach is to help her get open-minded and curious about Tim’s strengths and his very different point of view.

So, this is just one of the many ways taming our inner critic is crucial to developing as a leader and what many executives need to be reminded of constantly. Because the paradox often is: to succeed as leaders, we have to be able to see that a colleague brings a unique and powerful combination of talents, skills, contacts, and domain knowledge (that we often need but don’t have), and then be able to hold that colleague in warm regard despite the parts about him or her that really annoy us. The paradox of leadership is that we succeed only when we give our people, especially people we need but may not “like,” the freedom and tools they need to succeed.

How do you see the inner critic causing trouble at work? Has your inner critic (either the voice of harshness towards yourself or another) impacted your ability to lead? Do you suspect it’s wreaked havoc on others? Share!

Want to learn more? Read The 30-Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic.


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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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