Or do they? A colleague recently forwarded me a blog musing on the common advice that a good leader needs to develop a thick skin in order to cope with criticism and negative comments which, like or not, will always come with the territory. We have all felt the ‘sting’ of criticism and if you’re in charge you have to be able to deal with it. Is it essential to have a thick skin to be an effective leader when faced with detractors, and what exactly is the meaning of this well worn analogy?

The obvious interpretation is that criticism will be unable to permeate a thick skin, instead bouncing off like sonar hitting a rock or sliding like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. By not letting critics get under your skin, your reaction will be controlled rather than emotional, enabling you to wade through the flak unscathed. Often having a thick skin is seen as an admirable quality and one that earns respect. Because of this aspiring leaders, particularly women, get told to harden up.

However, it is worth pondering on whether the tough guy approach is necessarily the best. Being more inclined towards the thin-skinned end of the scale myself (this is someone who cries at kids’ movies like Charlotte’s Web here), I was heartened to read that it’s not always necessary to have the hide of a rhino and there are some advantages to being a more sensitive soul. Really thick-skinned people can appear aloof, indifferent and rather unapproachable. Showing some compassion helps people feel comfortable around you and it also enables you to be empathetic towards others and where they (and their criticism) are coming from.  

I find it useful to observe people in leadership positions around me, not just politicians and the like, but people in the immediate community. Watch how others in positions of responsibility at University, in clubs, at work and even in your family handle and react to criticism. Do they ignore it, put it in perspective or let it ruin their day?  For me, I like the idea of balance. Put on your body armour when you need it but take it off again and let your skin breathe. It is also important to remember it’s what you do with the advice that counts.

So if you’ve ever been told to grow a thick skin, I recommend this blog by Skip Richard, especially his tips for dealing with criticism. www.skipprichard.com/blog/whats-your-skin-type

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