61: Do Leaders Need Thick Skin?

Do you need a "thick skin" to be a leader?
Do you need a “thick skin” to be a leader?

Welcome to this episode about whether leaders need a thick skin. I want to apologize for some technical issues with my?Engage page. I am extending the offer for a while. Please let me hear from you about this question: What are the?Eight Skills Every New Leader MUST Master.

What do you think has to be on the list? Write me at HansFinzel.com/Engage

Today: Do You Need Thick Skin to be A Great Leader? What happens when people:

  • Criticize you
  • Attack you
  • Resist you
  • Ignore you
  • Give you the passive aggressive treatment
  • Bombard you with negativity

Most of this material is taken from my book, Change is Like a Slinky (Chapter 20 – pages 221 following)

?In short, a change imposed is a change opposed.?
–From Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

Get ready for opposition. Develop coping skills for handling attacks as you push forward with changes. Some people will not sit on the sidelines quietly but will dish out hostility to your plans and actions. Instead of developing a thick skin, learn to use those attacks to advance of the cause.

?If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won?t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10,000 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.? ? Abraham Lincoln

During World War II, the Germans waged serious warfare with one of their most potent weapons: their sleek, black underwater vessels of destruction called ?the U-boat? (U stands for Unterwasser, which is the German word for Underwater– a typical literal German functional description). These U-boats wreaked havoc in the Atlantic as the Allied forces attempted to close in.

The great war movie Das Boot illustrates the incredible stress of life underwater for weeks on end in one of those German submarines. When the Allied Forces detected one of these underwater warriors, they began to pummel the U boats with depth charges. For days on end the German sailors would be shaken up like gravel in a cement mixer, being pounded with explosives, rolling from side to side, mortal danger surrounding them on literally all sides.

It is hard to imagine that they lived through that kind of beating, but many did live to tell about it.

Ironically, it was just a few years after the war that an American engineer was working to develop naval instruments that retain their stability during just such turbulence when he accidentally knocked over a coiled spring, saw it ?walk? down the table, and … well, you can imagine that is where the slinky comes from.

There are times during major change initiatives when criticism can get that intense, and remaining stable is a near impossibility. Beware: Resistance will come. And it will hurt. If you have bold plans to shake things up, you?d better strap on that army surplus flak jacket right away.

It has been said that leaders need to have thick skin. But that?s easier said than done — and actually, as I?ll explain later, it?s not even a desirable goal. Criticism cuts deep and hurts terribly. The cute little saying, ?sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,? is a bald face lie.

When we are pounded by the missiles and depth charges of friends or enemies, it has a devastating effect on our emotions. It can bring our work to a screeching halt as we ride out the barrages of the criticism. Old Abe was probably right to ignore the criticism and just do the best he could.

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Coping Mechanisms ? How People React to Change

People rely on one of five coping mechanisms when resisting change. The five coping mechanisms of any transition are:

  1. Hold out (hope that the past returns),
  2. Keep out (hunker in the bunker),
  3. Move out (relocate and hide in nostalgic yearnings for the status quo),
  4. Close out (toss in the towel and admit defeat) and
  5. Reach out (change with a direction toward the future).

So how do you, as a change agent, respond to these tactics?
In his book, Postmodern Pilgrims, Leonard Sweet wrote of a recent poll which found an astonishing 49 percent of business executives taking the most radical position they could about the future: that we are living in revolutionary times and at the dawn of an entirely new economic era requiring a fundamental reinvention of how we live, work and play. (Postmodern Pilgrims by Leonard Sweet published by Broadman & Holman Publishers ? Nashville, Tennessee, 2000).

Perhaps there is one more reaction Sweet missed: dish out, as in dish out opposition in open hostility! Dramatic times of change require dramatic choices which will likely provoke dramatic reactions!

If people in the organization think you are fundamentally changing the values of the organization in a bad direction, they will oppose you most openly. I have had numbers of people tell me, ?Well, this is not the organization that I signed up for.?

What are they driving at? Simple. They feel that the changes I?m making are eroding what they perceive to be the organization?s bedrock values dearest to them. I am messing with their culture. Their sense is that I am removing the anchors we discussed in an earlier chapter.

But they are confusing means with ends. They are turning a methods issue into a values issue.

Change will at times fail because the new directions are just too radical a change for the organization. Many change efforts fail because the proponents of change have underestimated the opposition.

?Leaders must always understand their own values as well as the values and culture prevailing in their organizations because these values determine whether a new sense of direction will be enthusiastically embraced, reluctantly accepted or rejected as inappropriate. Values and cultures are deeply routed, persistent, and often constrain possible new directions.? (Page 52, Visionary Leadership by Burt Nanus ? Josey Bass ? 1992)

Protecting Your Own Skin

How do you survive the rough and tumble of change warfare? Is it by developing a thick skin? DO YOU REALLY NEED A THICK SKIN?

No. In fact, developing a coarse emotional hide is the worst thing you could possibly do. Making yourself impervious to pain means shutting yourself off from most of the nuances and intricacies of life — and business. I?ve seen leaders become thick-hided and insulated before, and it only led to their demise. Before long, they became so well-insulated that they could not hear the whispers of common sense, interpersonal resentments, or even approaching trouble. For a leader whose greatest responsibility is to sense how the proverbial wind is blowing, that is the kiss of death.

Rather than a thick hide, the thing to develop is a resilient one. One that can absorb the blow, not deflect it. Instead of trying to develop ways of never feeling the attack, work on ways of processing it more painlessly and efficiently.

First, identify a core group of allies. These are the first people you came to with your radical idea, and who not only ?got it?, but asked how they could pitch in. They are the ones willing to endure with you the endless bombardments. Call them allies.

When the sniping gets too hot, gather these supporters in your office, close the door for awhile and unknot your tie. Find things about the situation which you can laugh at with them. Be irreverent — as long as it stays behind that closed door. Lower your blood pressure. Without a single friend of this kind in the organization, you?re doomed. Find at least one — cultivate one, if you haven?t already.

Second, try to visualize the attacker?s world; what is going on in their world that leads to this type of response? Why do they feel threatened by the changes? How does the relative viciousness of the attack reflect on your foe? Ask yourself, ?How would I feel if I saw things the way they do??

Third, let the criticism make you better. If a particular attack has left you stung, don?t react defensively to its message — instead, absorb the blow by going back to see if it has any merit. You?ll never gain anything by denying legitimate criticism. Use criticism as a tool for improving your proposals. Then move forward with your modification. You?ll have a better plan and you?ll disarm your opponent.

Nothing could improve — or perhaps — repair an internal reputation faster and more thoroughly than that sort of response on your part.

Fourth, reshape your self-image. Enduring an attack in your role as an organizational leader hurts the most when your job determines how you see yourself. Go back to bedrock and remind yourself who you are: your parents? offspring, a person loved by God, possibly a father, mother, husband or wife. Aren?t these more meaningful and significant realities than the job you hold?

A solid grounding in who you are is the best flak jacket you could ever don through difficult times.

What?s the Point? Get ready for opposition and develop coping skills as you push forward with change. Some people will not sit on the sidelines quietly but will dish out hostility to your plans and actions. Don?t reject their words out of hand; let them make you better, stronger, and your proposal for change that much more coherent. Learn from your adversaries.

Takeaways: As far as your own identity, make sure that you are grounded deeper than just your job description.


  • Identify some of your anchors and values that will carry you through the tough times of change warfare.
  • Identify and nurture your leadership change-agent team. Whether it is a formal committee or a casual group of co-workers, make sure they are on board with you in the change process. Talk often, polishing the dream.
  • Develop relationships with a few key individuals both inside and outside your organization or industry, who can be objective, providing a wise sounding board of counsel during the turbulent times to come.
  • Remember the pain of another’s words often comes from the ounce of truth buried in the criticism. What can you learn about the criticizer and their perspective? What can you learn about yourself in developing as a leader and change-agent? How can the change process be improved as a result of the painful criticism? Often those who seem most passionately opposed to the change merely passionately want to be heard. Set aside the pain and fear of the opposition and listen for what can be learned.
  • Go back to your journal or notes to review your own personal values and those of your organization. While you may be passionate yourself about the criticized change, you are not that change – there is much, much more to you than that; your own life, your family, your relationships and friends, your God?.
  • There are some who seem to gain joy and satisfaction from inflicting pain with their words. Learn who these people are, remove them from your organization, and steer clear of them in your life. Their purpose is not to advance change in the organization, but to protect and advance themselves at the expense of others.


No. In fact, developing a coarse emotional hide is the worst thing you could possibly do. Making yourself impervious to pain means shutting yourself off from most of the nuances and intricacies of life — and business. I?ve seen leaders become thick-hided and insulated before, and it only led to their demise.