How Your Defensiveness Can Undermine Your Leadership

It’s a natural human response to feel defensive, especially when you think you’re being accused of something or receive feedback you don’t agree with. There are countless reasons why people have feelings of defensiveness.

Feeling defensive may be normal, but acting on that defensiveness—letting it show in your words and behavior—is another matter, especially for leaders. When you’re a leader, your actions and reactions are constantly being watched and emulated by others. So if you find yourself frequently behaving defensively, be aware that you’re not only undermining your own leadership but also potentially harming those you lead with your bad example.

If defensive responses are ingrained into your behavior, you may not even be aware of them. Here are some of the most common ways defensiveness manifests in leaders. See if any of them sound familiar:

Attacking the messenger. If someone gives you feedback that’s critical in nature, the last thing you should do is attack the critic or become argumentative. Instead, make a genuine effort to understand what’s being said and why.

Rationalizing away feedback. If, as a leader, you cannot be open to what is being said and instead distort the critical perspective while rationalizing your behavior, you harm your reputation and effectiveness. Make it a goal to be seen as a leader who can listen and acknowledge anything without easily offended.

Making excuses. No one wants to hear excuses—why you are the way you are, why you do the things you do, or why the issue at hand isn’t your fault. The people you’re leading want to know that you’re the kind of leader who shares the blame and gives away the credit. It’s not easy to accomplish, but it’s a hallmark of the best leaders .

Reacting badly. If you respond with anger, annoyance or exasperation, your defensiveness will scare people away, which means they’ll be unwilling to talk with you when there’s something important that needs to be addressed. Fear is the death of communication, and it can do grave damage to your relationship with your team. Great leaders create space between the stimulus—in this case, criticism—and the response. Within that space, they give themselves the time to choose to respond rather than reacting in the moment.

As a leader, you likely face criticism and critics on a daily basis. The best leaders take it in stride—they find ways to learn from the perspective of others, even if it’s not something they enjoy hearing, and they respond thoughtfully.

Lead from within: We’re all capable of being triggered by our feelings in difficult moments, but it’s the leaders who learn how to control their defensiveness who will accomplish the most.


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What Gets Between You and Your Greatness


After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR, Inc.com, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

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