TONE Monthly
April 2019

The Critic, the Cheerleader and the Coach

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By Brandi McDonald, DNP, RN, CMSRN, CNML

In a recent conversation with my Chief Nursing Officer, he mentioned the differences between coaches and cheerleaders. We were discussing leadership candidates and the importance of the coach. In an analogy of sports teams and the 2 roles they play, he described the characteristics of leaders in the coaches and cheerleaders. He mentioned how good leaders exemplify good coaches.

I started reflecting on my own personal leadership and about who I hire into leadership roles. In an article by Patrick Fiorenza (2014), he discusses 3 characteristics of good leaders. He stated that if managers want to become better leaders, they should view their roles in these 3 domains: the critic, the cheerleader, and the coach. Each one represents an important aspect of good leadership.

The Critic
When I think about the critic, I think first about how I as a leader accept criticism. This is a crucial skill for any leader, and how criticism is handled says a lot about leadership maturity. Llopis (2015) discusses 4 ways leaders can handle criticism: don’t play the victim, don’t react impulsively, don’t take it personally, turn criticism into opportunity. I have personally worked through each of these at some point in my leadership journey and through many mistakes, learned a hard lesson in how these can hinder relationships if not followed. Llopis (2015) says if no one is criticizing your leadership, you are not leading correctly. Crucial conversations are frequently discussed as a necessary competency for leaders. Learning how to accept criticism is essential.

Accepting criticism is never easy, but providing constructive criticism is even more difficult. Maybe criticism in this case is too harsh a word. Fiorenza (2014) argues that being a critic means being thorough in your evaluation of performance and without it, teams remain complacent in mediocrity. In healthcare, mediocrity can translate into a post-surgical infection, a pressure ulcer, or a medication error. Even worse, lack of attention to performance could result in sentinel events or even death. In leadership, instead of criticism, we call it having crucial conversations. In these situations, stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run high (Lowry and Overton, 2013). Fortunately, skills in conflict management and resolution and engaging in crucial conversations can be learned.

The Cheerleader
Although evaluating performance requires an obligation to address issues, it also requires a celebration or recognition for good performance and jobs well done. This is the role of the cheerleader. Cheerleaders are well known as individuals who lead sports teams to motivate them to win during competitions. Regardless of the outcome of the game, the cheerleaders are relentless in chanting encouraging words to support their team. Everyone needs someone who makes them feel important and everyone needs the support. The cheerleader encourages you through your challenges.

The Coach
My husband is a teacher and coach. He’s been coaching for 18 years. Recently he started coaching my 6th grade daughter’s all-star basketball team. During one of their practices, the girls were learning a new offensive play. At this level the girls have a habit of dribbling with their eyes down watching the ball. He told the girls to dribble with their eyes up. He then discussed why it was important. He said, “If you’re dribbling the ball and someone comes to stop you, you need to know where they came from. You need to know what you’re doing with the ball and why. You need to understand why you’re making a pass, not just that you are making a pass.” He then discussed with me how he wants to prepare these girls to play at the next level, not just prepare for the next tournament. That’s leadership. He could have stopped with telling them to look up when they dribble or telling them where to pass the ball. He is making them better players.

It’s not enough to identify things that are wrong. It’s not enough to praise someone when things go well. Leadership is a process of helping others identify and realize their opportunities for growth. In the basketball example, the critic would have said “don’t look down when you dribble”. The cheerleader would have said “you can do it”. The coach takes them to the next level.

Fiorenza, P. (2014, June 26). 3 Leadership Roles: The Coach, the Cheerleader and the Critic. Retrieved from

Llopis, G. (2015). 4 Constructive Ways Leaders Can Handle Criticism. Forbes. Retrieved fro

Lowry, A.C., & Overton, A.R. (2013). Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People. Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, 26(4), 259-64.


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