How do you handle criticism?

At the Marion Chamber of Commerce meeting Oct. 19, city council member and Marion Economic Development Inc. President Todd Heitschmidt presented the results of a discussion MEDI had about Marion’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. One of the weaknesses discussed was leadership. That certainly is an area where Marion, or any other community, could use improvement.

There is so much that goes into leadership. It takes charisma, organizational ability, setting ambitious but reachable goals, and recognizing successes and acknowledging shortcomings.

Leadership also takes a willingness to honestly appraise where you are, what is right, what is wrong, where you want to be, and what obstacles are between here and there. Part of that is listening to criticism — not accepting every criticism as absolute truth, but listening to it and considering whether it has merit.

Genuinely listening to criticism seems to be a skill in short supply for a couple of people paid to lead locally. Based on one sentence in a recent editorial, I had a long sit-down discussion with USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker over his concerns about how “negative” this newspaper is, or is perceived to be. At the end of the meeting, we agreed to find time to talk about ACT scores — the subject of the editorial that so offended him. What followed was a week and a half of trying to find a time, until Leiker e-mailed to say he didn’t want to talk about ACT scores after all.

“We really don’t like a story about our scores following one about Hillsboro,” Leiker wrote. “We would like to be first in our local paper.”

He could have told me that from the beginning. He also could have ensured that USD 408 came first in the discussion about ACT scores. If information from other school districts holds true for Marion, Leiker probably had ACT scores in August. Since then there have been two monthly Board of Education meetings, and he could have reviewed the scores with the school board at either meeting. If reviewed in September, they would have appeared in this newspaper a month before any discussion about ACT scores from any other district.

So what is a superintendent to do about negative publicity? Apparently talk a good talk about cooperation, back out of that, then announce the creation of a monthly newsletter, focused only on positive news. Positive news that can’t be found anywhere else, like Girl Scouts learning about Haiti and trying to help (page 4), students putting on a fine musical production with help from many of the community’s civic-minded individuals (page 1), or a local business competing for the common good (below).

The superintendent might not like this editorial, but at least I don’t have to worry about it upsetting Marion City Administrator Doug Kjellin. I know he won’t be upset, because I know he won’t read it. And I know he won’t read it, because he made a big deal of letting the newspaper know he wasn’t renewing his subscription, marching into the office and making such a show of delivering the note that said he wasn’t renewing that the person who helped him had to pass on the news to me.

I can’t blame him for not wanting to read about himself and his adventures overstepping his authority in the newspaper. I know I wouldn’t want to be reminded if I made a decision to give an improper permit for a radio tower that was overturned. But Kjellin is batting at least .500 in taking matters into his own hands that aren’t his decision to make. We still have twice-weekly trash pickup despite an ordinance ordering once-weekly trash pickup.

Some people don’t want to hear criticism. Others refuse to even listen to it. But the best leaders listen to criticism, consider its merits, and try to learn from it.

— ADAM STEWART

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