Constructive Criticsm: Are You Simon, Paula, or Randy?

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I’m not an expert on leadership by any means. In fact, I’ve got a lot to learn. One thing I do know, however, is that I can learn by observing others. If you want to be great at something find someone who is already great and do what they do.

I know, I know, it’s probably not the most genius thing you’ve ever heard. But it’s true. And it makes good ‘ol fashioned common sense.

That being said. We can also learn by observing differences in leadership styles. The way people handle themselves when dishing out criticism, observations, and even encouragement.

I’ve found, what I believe to be, a profound nugget of leadership wisdom in one of America’s most popular television shows: American Idol. You know the one I’m talking about. Even if you aren’t a regular viewer, American Idol permeates our culture, it has seeped into our conversations around the water cooler, dinner tables, and chat rooms.

I’m not a devoted fan, though I do enjoy the early stages of the show. This year I picked David Cook to win it all. He did. In past years I’ve missed the mark. Anyhow, when I have been able to catch an episode here and there one thing jumps out at me every time.

It’s not the talent (or lack of talent) that I notice. It’s not the extravagant stage/set design. It’s not the “in the pocket” house band or back up singers that grab my attention.

It’s ALWAYS Simon, Paula, and Randy. Specifically, it’s their banter with the contestants that always gets me thinking about my own leadership in worship and arts ministry.

Each of the American Idol judges is a unique personality. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s something to be learned from watching their interactions with each contestant.

Simon is the “mean” judge. He’s the one that contestants dread being in front of. He’s brutally honest. He’s very opinionated and he doesn’t sugar coat anything. One thing that always jumps out at me though, when he’s sharing his insights: 99.9% of the time he’s “spot on.”

When interacting with your team are you Simon-esque? Are you confident that whatever comes out of your mouth is the gospel truth? Do you know all there is to know about whatever it is you’re speaking about? Do you come across as harsh, brutal, even mean?

Now, just to be sure that we’re not totally vilifying Simon, we’ll talk about his good points. He has his strengths too. He’s confident. He’s knowledgeable. When it comes time to praise or encourage, he does.

Paula is the sensitive judge. She’s the giver of hugs. The bestower of praise. In her own spacey way, she’s the one who tries to make everything palatable for the contestants. Even if she has something negative to say, she’s always overcompensating for it with some comment about how beautiful they look or how passionate they are about singing.

When interacting with your team are you a Paula? Are you an anything goes, because we’re all beautiful servants of the Lord kind of leader? Are you overly sensitive? Do you sugar coat things to try and offset any correction or challenges you might need to bring to your team? Do you come across as overly mushy, sensitive, even carefree?

Paula has her strengths too. She’s genuine. She radiates sincere care for the contestants as people, not just as contestants in a singing contest. When it comes time to dish out a little constructive criticism, she does, although most of the time the contestant probably walks away from it not knowing exactly what she said.

Randy is the cool judge. He’s the one who gets excited with the contestants when they nail their performance. But he also breaks it down when they didn’t. He uses words like “dawg” and “da bomb” and “not feelin’ it” to convey his criticisms or praises. He relates well to the contestants. He tends to be right on the level with the contestants.

When interacting with your team, are you Randy-like? Are you right there with them? Are you cool, hip, and able to relate? Do you meet your team where they are, offering honest insight and sincere criticism?

Out of the three, Randy seems to me to be the most down to earth. If you were to pattern your interaction after just one of these, I would suggest Randy. He’s straight to the point, but nice. He’s genuine, but not mushy. He seems to be “one of the guys” (so to speak).

I think a lot of that has to do with his interaction with artists on every level. Not that Simon or Paula don’t have any of those interactions, but I believe Randy is theĀ  most involved in a hands on way in the “business” outside of American Idol.

Now before we throw out Simon and Paula as models to pattern ourselves after I think we should take note of the strengths of all three of these and learn from them all. When delivering a constructive criticism, challenge, encouragement, or a praise we should:

  • Be honest.
  • Be sincere.
  • Be right (not perfect, but just know what you’re talking about).
  • Be humble.
  • Be sensitive.
  • Be cool (yes, be cool, try to remember that your team is not made up of robots; approach criticism in calm, collected manner).
  • Be “for” your team (let them know above and beyond criticism that they are better than sliced bread and more valuable than Bill Gates).

Delivering Constructive Criticism: Let’s face it. If you’re leading any sort of creative arts team (especially a worship band), at some point you’ll definitely have to constructively bring criticism to the team as a whole or individual members. It’s tough, but it doesn’t have to be hard.

When bringing the smackdown to the entire team try the tried and true “sandwich” method of delivery. Put your constructive criticism between two slices of encouragement. It tastes a whole lot better than a heaping helping of bitter correction by itself.

The same method works when confronting an individual team member about any issue. But it’s probably better to do it over lunch or off to the side instead of in front of the entire team. If it’s just a minor issue like a flat note or a missed entrance, that can be handled right then and there.

Bottom line is, when we’re frustrated with things like people not being prepared or showing up late, they need to know it. They need to know when they’re wasting other people’s time. They need to know when the “end result” suffers. Our goal as leaders is to corral the passion and talents of volunteers to create a “performance” and environment that helps people see, experience, and love God through music. Sure, we’re there to sing praises and to celebrate corporately, but ultimately it’s not so much about how we sound or what songs we sing as much as it is about creating an environment that points people to God. It’s about THEM* not us.

Our teams need to be corrected. They need to be steered. They need to be challenged and equipped to be great. We HAVE to deliver the criticisms for that to happen. Just make sure when you deliver it, they’re not perceiving you as Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Xerxes the Great bearing down on them with all the wrath and fury of an ancient empire spreading its borders.

Team members should feel needed, valued, and loved by their leaders. Find the balance and you’ll do well.

* Disclaimer: By THEM not us, I don’t mean that we don’t have a part to play in the whole, we do. But that’s exactly my point, it’s about the WHOLE, not me as an individual. It’s not about my instrument, my voice, or my talent. It’s about OUR unified voice, all together, as one.



is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at HighestPraise.com.

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