On Dealing with Criticism in Family Enterprise

This week we’re taking a bit of a different tack, and entering into some territory that’s relatively new for me.

I can’t even really say how this idea came onto my radar, except to say that it first arose a little over a month ago while I was on vacation in the Caribbean. 

Perhaps a few days sitting on a beach created some new thinking.

It had been a few months since I last recalled hearing about the speech commonly known as “The Man in the Arena”, but something brought it front of mind for me in Antigua one day.

The gist of it that I recalled is that the person busy doing things should not pay too much attention to their critics, and so I decided to save it to my “future blogs” folder.

In the Spotlight of Potential Critics

As I researched the speech to get the more context, I learned that Teddy Roosevelt made this speech in Paris in 1910, which would have been soon after his second term as US President ended.

Presumably as President he was the subject of much criticism, and now felt he had some perspective to share with other “doers” who constantly suffer the slings of so many “watchers”.

A brief excerpt:


                         “It is not the critic who counts… 

                           …The credit belongs to the man who 

                           is in the arena, whose face is marred 

                           by dust and sweat and blood….”


Roosevelt’s speech was about citizenship in society, but that’s not the area I normally cover, as I typically write about families and the challenges they face when transitioning their wealth to the next generation.

Let’s pivot to that world now, and see what we can uncover.

Giving Credit Instead of Criticism

Quite often the person who founded a family business that becomes successful ends up getting a lot of credit for their hard work and ingenuity.

Along the way, though, they surely almost always have to have ignored many critics and persevered in spite of many naysayers.

At some point though, after achieving success the credit outweighs the criticism.

As the business passes from one generation to the next, this often changes markedly, though.

As any second-generation successor will attest, the criticism and second-guessing typically outweighs credit for a long time.

I suppose that in the end, they need to develop the same thick skin that their parents had to persevere in spite of criticism for decades before the credit finally comes.

Attitude Changes from One Generation to the Next

Of course one of the key differences for the generations that follow that of the founder is that many of the critics are actually other family members.

While cutting “Dad” some slack with an attitude of “it’s his business, so he can do whatever he wants with it” is normal, that attitude rarely survives to the successor, who often attained that leadership role in some sort of “coronation”.

Those who did not receive the crown can become the greatest critics of the one who did.

Taking a big leadership role in a family is fraught with risk and isn’t for everyone, and criticism can be one of the biggest drawbacks.

Surviving the criticism while awaiting the credit can be exhausting.

What About Tom Brady in All of This?

If you Google “the man in the arena” nowadays, you will come across references to a recent TV series with that title, featuring football star Tom Brady.

As I mentioned this blog topic to my son he asked “Are you writing about Tom Brady?”. I said “No, Teddy Roosevelt”.

But then I awoke the next day and realized that a Brady tie-in could work for me.

Having won the Super Bowl seven times, he’s received his share of credit from many fans, as well as criticism from detractors. 

He also benefited from playing for some great coaches over the years, most notably Bill Belichick.

Coaching as Part of the Solution?

Brady as the man in the arena certainly spent a good deal of time working through challenges with his coaches.

A good coach can keep you from getting too high on yourself when things are going well, while also boosting you up as needed when things aren’t going as planned.

For those who are busy “doing”, they certainly should be encouraged to continue moving forward, but while also taking time to reflect with someone they truly trust.