Prior to World War II, George C. Marshall was profoundly influenced by his superior, General John J. Pershing. When he risked his career by bringing a strong disagreement to Perishing, it proved to be a pivotal encounter. According to Marshall’s biographer, “Pershing had found an officer who would tell him the truth rather than attempt to gloss inadequacies. Marshall himself was to discover that the general was capable of bearing criticism impersonally, of weighing it without taking offense. Pershing expected Marshall to speak out, to advise, and, if he thought it necessary, to criticize. Marshall did so, discovering in the Allied Expeditionary Forces commander a rare personal objectivity. ‘I have never seen a man who could listen to as much criticism . . . You could say what you pleased as long as it was straight, constructive criticism.’ Other men had influenced him but in Pershing, Marshall found a personal model.” (General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman, by Ed Cray).
Marshall himself went on to earn high regard by all who knew him, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Such historical military leaders as Eisenhower and Patton owed their success to Marshall. So on the subject of leadership, he has a proven track record.
At the core of receiving criticism is the desire to gain knowledge about oneself and one’s decisions rather than the attempt to “gloss inadequacies.” Rarely is criticism given in the “right way”, but as another great leader (my mother, I think it was) used to say, “In every criticism, there is a kernel of truth.” The key is to look past the “offense” of the criticism which is really a reaction of our pride and look for the beneficial medicine that is contained therein.
If it is true that leaders are to be learners, then negative feedback (to put it another way) is a necessary source of information that we need to consider carefully. The reality of the matter is that we cannot grow unless we can see ourselves objectively. We cannot see ourselves objectively unless we have accurate feedback. We cannot hear the accurate feedback if we are insecure or defensive about ourselves.
The leader who weighs the criticism carefully without being personally offended has the opportunity to add truth to his working knowledge of himself and his leadership. That just seems to be a wise thing for a leader to do.