What Bothers Me Most about Working with Porcupines

“I’ve had it with my critics!”

You’ve said it too. We’ve all had our share of feisty characters show up in our daily labors. My encounters with the species began as an aspiring leader at age sixteen. Having already served in a number of roles, friends encouraged me to run for student body president. As I stood to give my campaign speech, there were jeers and boos from the back row. The opposing candidate had a younger brother. Unbeknownst to my campaign, little brother had gathered a gaggle of hecklers.

As I began to speak, a series of signs were lifted in the air. They read: DON’T LET THIS ELECTION GO DOWN TO JOHN! Disturbance rumbled in the room. I fumbled, stumbled over a phrase, then regained my composure to deliver a less-than-compelling address. Two days later, I was defeated. The event became a lifelong leadership metaphor for an overarching reality: Back-row critics will always abound!

In every realm of service, I have regularly encountered those “prickly critters” and their heavy doses of cantankerous pushback. You know the kind of people. They’re often jaded, jealous, even belligerent—all too often verbally critical of the organization, your modus operandi, and even you personally. Admit it: those pokes feel painful.

Exceptional leadership in our workplaces means intentionally influencing others for the advance of Christ’s kingdom work. Such intentional influence necessitates prioritizing the cultivation of our relational skills. In Business As Mission, Michael R. Baer reminds us that kingdom business is relational, and he spotlights the primacy of intentional relationships. Baer urges us to value people as God does. He supplies a brief survey of biblical anthropology. Key concepts include: People are the good creation of God; People are created in the image of God; People are the highest point of God’s creation; People are fallen and in rebellion against God; People are redeemed at a great price; People will share in God’s kingdom. Such anthropological truths can motivate us to prioritize our relational skills, even with our critics.

Working in a variety of leadership realms across three decades, I have encountered plenty of self-consumed, caustic individuals. Amidst such clashes, I’ve seen two prickly problems dealing with porcupine people. And there’s one more that bothers me most of all.

First, porcupines bring out my own reaction to poke back.

The urge to fling reciprocal accusations or launch a strong defense is totally normal. Our impulse is to kick back, punch back, and set ‘em straight. 100% natural.  And that’s the problem. As kingdom leaders, we are called to a supernatural, divine style of love for people who can be very unlovely. We must never forget, Christ led the way with that style of love for us. Love is absolutely necessary, even and especially when we don’t feel like it. In his winsome relationship guide The Delicate Art of Dancing with Porcupines, Bob Phillips counsels:

“It’s not easy to demonstrate love in the face of criticism or rejection from others. But we must respond lovingly to others even when we don’t feel like it. I’ve had people tell me, “If I act loving when I don’t feel loving, I’d be a hypocrite.” No, you are not a hypocrite. Rather, you are a responsible person demonstrating responsible behavior.”

Leaders who are committed to work like Jesus respond responsibly instead of reacting with a poke back.

Second, porcupines bring out my own dark side reaction, to insist that I’m totally right!

“They simply don’t yet see how faultless, pure-motived, and Christ-like I am in both my attitude and approach.” Clad with such posture of heart, I jut out my chin, stiffen my neck, and determine that I am in the right.

You might react: “I have no responsibility here; I’ve done no wrong! All he says is unfounded. It’s really his problem!” J. Oswald Sanders tells of Samuel Brengle, leader in the Salvation Army, who was sharply attacked by a caustic critic. Brengle’s response? “I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with him.”

During my early years in leadership, one of my mentors shared this axiom for dealing with critics: Always draw the nugget from the negative. His point? Even if you know for certain you are right—and you often are—there is probably still something to learn, some way in which you can grow and change.

And right there is my deep-down biggest problem about working with the prickly ones. They often help me see more ways in which I need to change and grow in greater Christ-likeness. If I slow down to actually consider their pokes and jabs, I can sometimes see ways in which I need to lead our organization in better ways.

Doggone it! My critics’ accusations might carry a nugget of gold that can enrich my character and methodology for even greater kingdom work. Consider these three outcomes of working responsibly with your leadership porcupines:

You’ll grow thicker skin.

You’ll grow a softer heart.

You might even discover surprises.   

It’s very tempting to petrify your perspective about porcupine people, to consider your view of that person settled once and for all. “She will never change. I know it!” Go ahead, fossilize them forever. It feels good to categorize people, to dump them into the bucket with your other opponents. It’s one of the ways we deal with the hurts, hang-ups, and heartaches we face from the “trouble-makers.”

But what if a person’s criticism isn’t always the end of the story?

Years ago, I landed in a new leadership role. I needed to lead change endeavors for the organization. As I led, my list of critics grew exponentially longer. One senior gentleman really did not appreciate the fresh directions. “We’ve never done it that way!” The all-too-familiar mantra was his battle cry. In several meetings, he shared hard words, some of them aimed at me. It was so tempting to conclude: He will never come around. I almost tossed him in the bucket . But to my amazement, a few months later he informed me that he and his wife were praying for me and our family. We sent them a Christmas card that year, and I learned it was on their refrigerator. In the months to come, I began to hear words of encouragement and buy-in about the fresh momentum in our organization. We were changing. I was changing. And my critic was actually changing for the good and for God’s glory.

I still cannot say I enjoy the painful pokes, but I can say I am grateful for how Christ uses my prickly critics. Thicker skin. A softer heart. And sometimes even a stunning surprise.

 

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