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A Marine Drill Instructor and Other Leaders’ Powerful Strategies for Handling Criticism

The Marine Corps breeds some of the toughest men and women in the world, and its drill instructors are prime examples of fierceness, firmness and military bearing. In the article you’re about to read, you’ll learn what a former senior drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, has to say about dealing with critics, as well as thoughts from leaders like Abraham Lincoln, General Smedley Butler, John C. Maxwell, and Dale Partridge, a professional blogger and author.

Here’s my interview with Master Sgt. Evans, former drill instructor at Parris Island:

Master Sgt. (then Staff Sgt.) Evans (left) correcting a Marine recruit.

Do you have a story about a time you handled criticism?


“I haven’t talked to my mother in over twenty years, since I moved out. It’s been over 25 years, but I still remember things between the two of us. My reaction at the time was that of a 17-year old. My mother asked me, in the middle of her workplace when I came to pick something up, what drugs I was taking that week, just wanting to be a smartass and insult me in front of her friends. 

Well, my response was, ‘What a great mother you are, you don’t even know what drugs I’m taking.’ So my reaction instantly was to go on the offensive. My very first reaction is to try and have something smart and say in return. That’s part of being born in New York. We’re very smartass and we’re very confrontational by nature. I’ve done a lot to overcome that. Now I try to, if someone says something, think about the consequences to what I have to say, and I try to not allow things to become personal, no matter what it is that’s said, because I don’t think you should ever let anything become personal. Especially in that situation.

Parris Island was a perfect example. When you’re a drill instructor on Parris Island you’re criticized for three years. Nothing you ever say is good enough. You’re never loud enough, you’re never fast enough, you’re never demanding enough on the recruits. You don’t have enough time management skills, nothing. So much as we go after recruits, leaders are attacking the drill instructors enough.”


How do you deal with criticism?


“Words are words. Words are meant to elicit a reaction, and they’re only as strong as the reaction you allow them to draw out of you. So you have to understand when someone says something they’re trying to get a reaction, and all you’re doing by reacting to it is giving someone what they want. The easiest way to counteract someone who’s trying to insult you is to not give them the reaction they’re looking for. Maintaining your composure is the biggest deterrent to it.”


What if you heard someone talked about you behind your back?


“Even then, if someone is using insults as a form of communication about you or to you, not that their desire solely is to get a reaction, but in a manner of speaking it is. They’re trying to cause some kind of reaction. They’re trying to get you to say something, they’re trying to draw you into a debate about something. They’re trying to make you angry. The only reason to insult someone is to make them angry. Even if it’s them speaking to someone else about you. Let me consider the source of this result: Is it someone who’s opinion I value? If I don’t value your opinion in the first place, your opinion means nothing to me, because I don’t care about your thoughts anyway.

You can always de-escalate something like that, and like I said, for me, it’s ‘do I value your opinion?’ Now if it’s someone who’s opinion I value, I’m going to do two things: 1. Re-evaluate my respect for that person, because if the only way you can get your thoughts across is to talk about me to someone else, maybe you’re not the person whose respect I should want or whose opinion I should value. 2. If you’re someone who’s willing to come to me and openly criticize me to my face, that’s a whole different level, and if you’re able to do it in a way that drives me forward or helps me to grow then you’re someone who’s opinion I value, then great, but if not.”


A portrait of Gen. Smedley Butler.

Marine General Smedley Butler had blunt advice on how he handled his critics. He said that when he was young, he felt a need to impress his friends and be the popular guy in the group. Criticism used to hurt him — until he became a Marine.


“I have been berated and insulted, denounced as a yellow dog, a snake, and a skunk. I have been cursed by the experts. I have been called every possible combination of unprintable cuss words in the English language. Bother me? Huh! When I hear someone cussing me now, I never turn my head to see who is talking.”


The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln also had golden advice to offer, and his ideas can be summed into one quote from him:


“Any leader will be criticized. How you handle it will determine whether you succeed or fail.”


Lincoln was “slandered, libeled, and hated perhaps more intensely than any other man ever to run for the nation’s highest office,” historian Donald Phillips said. The press of the day called him names like a grotesque baboon, a tyrant, an ape, and a third rate country lawyer who once split rails and now splits the Union.


Most of the time, Lincoln didn’t even read negative press about him, unless he thought it would greatly affect the public’s perception of him or got in the way of a mission he was determined to accomplish. When he was indirectly insulted, he would usually write a long letter expressing his anger to the person that offended him, then seal it and never send it. An eye-opening and intriguing book into the life of the great president I recommend is “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald T. Phillips.


Dale Partridge, founder of Startup Camp.

Dale Partridge, entrepreneur, professional blogger and author, in an article called “How I Overcome Haters, Death Threats, and the Offended Internet,” has great advice about conquering criticism, though it’s geared more towards writers experiencing backlash online. He says:


  1. Your silence is more powerful than words. As Dale says, “The best way to respond to such people, is to not.”
  2. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control what happens in us. “For me,” Dale says, “When I see a driver become so frustrated in traffic they begin to yell, raise their hands in the air, or flip off another person, my only emotion is empathy. I think to myself, ‘Wow, their life must really stink.’ We must remember that in most cases, negativity is as projection of their story.”
  3. Aim for respect, not recognition. (For writers) “Words come with immense responsibility. For in today’s world, when they are published, they are permanent.”
  4. Define discuss, debate, division, and death. “We all have things we care about. And the internet makes us feel as if they should all be shared in the feeds of our social profiles. That just isn’t true. There’s a time and a place for everything.”


John C. Maxwell, best-selling author and the man at the forefront of leadership today.

John Maxwell, rated the #1 leader in the world today by magazines like Inc.com among others, and author of over 80 books which have sold over 500 million copies, also has four steps to dealing with criticism.


  1. Know yourself. “Some of the best people who ever entered my life were my critics, not my friends.”
  2. Change yourself. “I have determined to not be defensive when criticized, to look for the grain of truth, make the necessary changes and take the high road.”
  3. Accept yourself. “Maturity also enables you to accept yourself, which is the first step in becoming a better person.”
  4. Forget yourself. “Secure people forget themselves so they can focus on others. This allows us to be secure enough to take criticism and even serve the critic.”


You can read his article, or look at his quote which puts it in a nutshell: “If you’re getting kicked in the rear it means you’re out in front.”


We have a lot we can learn from the leaders above, and I hope you can take away at least one lesson from this article. But don’t let the discussion end here — what do YOU do when you’re criticized? I encourage you to share your story with me below.

Other quotes on criticism:


“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste some people will have of success is taking a bite out of you.” – Zig Ziglar

“I like criticism. It makes you strong.” – Lebron James

“I like constructive criticism from smart people.” – Prince