Thick Skin: An Essential Quality of Every Leader : John Mattone Global, Inc.

Thick skin allows leaders to distance themselves from the negative opinions of others while recognizing constructive criticism. Coupled with a tender heart, a thick skin makes leaders resilient, compassionate, focused, and trustworthy. Executive coaching sees this combination as one that allows leaders to fulfill their potential.

“It is a grave error for any leader to be oversensitive in the face of criticism.”- Nelson Mandela. 

Leaders who can’t handle criticism don’t lead for long. Leaders are regularly targets of criticism whether it be constructive or malicious. If they have a “thick skin,” they can handle it well. If they don’t, they had better develop one. Otherwise, their leadership will suffer.

Intelligent leaders understand their roles are lightning rods for criticism. Great leaders are always first in line when it comes to criticism and last when it comes to recognition.


A leader’s job is to draw and absorb criticism, constructive or otherwise. 

Nelson Mandela said it is the fate of the leader to be misunderstood. Misunderstandings lead to more or less-informed criticism. Leaders with thin skins react to criticism by treating their interlocutors as ill-informed parties that need educating. It’s a grievous mistake to react to criticism like this.

How Having Thin Skin Hurts Leadership

From the perspective of leadership coaching, leaders are compassionate, humble, tender-hearted individuals looking out for the best interests of team members. If this tender-heartedness is coupled with thin skin, however, those leaders will fail.

Thin-skinned individuals find it impossible to move past someone’s disparaging comments. They try to reason and negotiate with the criticizing party and look to explain misunderstandings and influence opinions.

Being on a constant quest to “set the record straight” and engage in meaningless arguments with ill-informed interlocutors isn’t just petty. It’s exhausting, distracting, and leads to burnout. It’s an exercise in futility that no serious leader would undertake and no business coaching professional would endorse.

A thick-skinned leader understands the futility of worrying about what everyone thinks. Such leaders have the mental and emotional fortitude to forgive and forget. They shrug off ill-informed critiques and learn to separate constructive criticism from malicious hackling and envy-born jabs.

Leader Types Based on Skin Thickness

In the context of leadership coaching, the ideal leader is one with thick skin and a tender heart. The thick skin allows leaders to handle criticism. The tender heart lets them put others ahead of themselves and make leaders of their high-potential employees. Tender-hearted people seek to encourage others, not to take advantage of them.

Executive coaching values compassionate people. Leaders with tender hearts understand no one is infallible. They don’t shy away from showing vulnerability and appreciation towards those who provide value to their organizations.

Some leaders couple thick skin with tough hearts. Tough-hearted leaders dole out rebukes while taking criticism on the chin. For such leaders, life is a slugfest. They think they know how to emerge victorious. The problem is that amid such a battle, they give up their fundamental leadership abilities. They don’t care about people, don’t value commitments, and they have no passion.

Leaders with thin skin and tough hearts can’t take criticism. However, they’re quick to dole it out. They value their reputations while not caring about their relationships. As they don’t mind hurting others, they can derail into narcissism.

Thin-skinned and tender-hearted leaders may fail to lead with conviction as they are prone to becoming slaves to the opinions of others. Such leaders are so keen on serving others that they expose themselves to forces they can’t handle. Thin-skinned and tender-hearted leaders may mistakenly believe they can make everyone happy.

thick skin

A thick skin goes well with a tender heart. 

The combination of thick skin and a tender heart allows leaders to be passionate and compassionate. Such leaders are focused, effective, and trustworthy. They have etched their convictions in stone. They know how to take and deliver feedback, and they don’t allow the opinions of others to shape their identities.

Thick-skinned and tender-hearted leaders may be rare, but they make great leaders. Those fortunate enough to fall under the leadership of such individuals stand to benefit greatly from it.

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