How To Nail Your MBA Interview

How to Handle Public Criticism as a Leader

In recent news, Elon Musk has faced growing backlash over Twitter’s bans of journalists. Musk isn’t the only high-profile businessman who’s faced criticism over his decisions. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai—to name a few—have all been publicly criticized over the years on everything from key business decisions to personality traits.

The leader job title comes with backlash. There’s no way around it. But, experts say, navigating public criticism and responding well can make a substantial impact—and may even allow leaders to avoid the harshest criticism.

Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner at Navalent and contributor at the Harvard Business Review, recently offered a few tips on how leaders should go about handling public criticism and steer themselves away from public backlash.


No matter how well the public perceives them, leaders inherently will face criticism at some point in their tenure. Carucci says accepting that reality is the first step to handling criticism.

“When you rise to levels of leadership, consider that your actions now play out on the jumbotron for all to see and evaluate,” Carucci says. “The higher you rise, the broader that visibility. Sometimes you’ll get things wrong. Given the thousands of decisions you likely make each week, you will inevitably disappoint or enrage someone.”

Staying focused on the long term and the decisions that you got right, Carucci says, is key.

“Don’t let yourself get stuck on any one choice or the public response to it,” he explains. “If you do, you risk losing confidence and letting excessive caution and ridicule-aversion drive your subsequent decisions, compounding the problem.”


Part of being a leader is owning up to mistakes—even when it doesn’t seem fair to you. That’s something that Carucci says is important in dealing with criticism.

“When you make mistakes, the scrutiny from the broader organization is intensified,” Carucci says. “Remember, the farther people are from the problem, the less context and understanding they have. They will fill in the blanks with conjecture, projection of their own trauma, and perceived motives for why you did what you did. Avoid getting sidetracked by all the noise, however much it stings. Stay focused on solving the problem, responding to anyone who’s been harmed, and learning from what happened.”


Oftentimes when we’re criticized, our first reaction is to feel shame and hide. But, as leaders, humility and transparency can be empowering.

“It might feel counterintuitive, but more transparency will work in your favor,” Carucci says. “Whether caused by your actions or not, even unintentionally, the result is that people you lead are now frustrated, hurt, angry, and confused. Your job isn’t to determine whether those feelings are legitimate or not — your job is to demonstrate empathy for them, regardless of whether you think they’re warranted. Doing anything that conveys dismissiveness risks making people feel like you’re gaslighting them.”

Being a leader—especially a good leader—comes down to demonstrating compassion and empathy for your team.

“Many leaders fear that a humble posture conveys guilt and remorse, inadvertently signaling ‘you did it’ even if that’s not true,” Carucci says, “But it actually shows care. Hiding and avoidance scream ‘guilt.’ Separate wanting to clarify or reduce your degree of culpability from caring for those you lead.”

Sources: Harvard Business Review, The New York Times

Next Page: How to tailor your MBA application.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.