How Critical is Your Thinking?

Critical Thinking: Essential for LeadershipIn my work with organizations, one of the fastest growing leadership competencies identified for future growth is critical thinking.  Not that it’s not always been important, but recent trends have seen a growing perception that it stands as a higher-level critical (pardon the pun) trait for leaders than even such stalwarts as strategic thinking, visioning, and innovative.

Not surprisingly, ask most leaders (regardless of their level in the organizational hierarchy), and it’s rare to find anyone who admits to not being a critical thinker.  They’re presumably all around us, although I could make a pretty convincing argument that many of them are merely critical….not thinkers.

In a recent Inc article, Paul Shoemaker articulated 4 Secrets of Great Critical Thinkers.  Let’s explore each, and I’ll reflect on my own abilities to excel at all four secrets.

  • Slow Down – Shoemaker posits the need to spend the time to fully explore multiple avenues or options for action.  This is probably my weakest ability.  I’m one who for years overly relied on gut feeling, and only in recent years have I begun developing the tolerance for wading through multiple possible definitions of core issues confronting me.
  • Break from the Pack – Blind adherence to conventional solutions leads to more conventional courses of action.  Critical thinkers stretch the underlying assumptions of a situation in any attempt to find a better alternative.  This one has never been a particular weakness of mine.  In fact, I’ve been called somewhat contrarian, at times.  Regardless, I tend to prefer Robert Frost’s “road less traveled.”
  • Encourage Disagreement – Nothing is more contagious than groupthink.  Stretch yourself and your team to not only accept divergent opinions and perspectives, but to actively seek them out.  Again, not a problem for me.  As a consultant, coach, and facilitator, I thrive on creating and nurturing the tough questions and critical conversations.  Respectful disagreement can be an incredibly powerful evaluation tool.
  • Engage with Mavericks – It’s frequently those on the fringes who have the most unusual (and often most interesting and effective) perspectives.  Critical thinkers value those who can challenge even the bounds of “rational” thinking.  I’m only moderately successful at this, although like the first secret, it’s something on which I’m actively working.

How closely do you align with these four “secrets?”  There are likely other attributes we could also include, but Shoemaker’s article is a good starting point for reflecting on our own critical thinking abilities as leaders.  So, remember, being critical by itself is a negative trait.  Being a critical thinker, however, is a prerequisite for highly successful leadership….possibly even for just being highly successful, as a leader, a follower, or merely a human being……

3 thoughts on “How Critical is Your Thinking?

  1. “although I could make a pretty convincing argument that many of them are merely critical….not thinkers” Yes, this is exactly what I see all too often. There are times when it is appropriate to be the devils advocate to encourage critical thinking, rather than just taking the first idea thrown out there. It’s also important to break away from “this is the way we’ve always done it.” However, all too often its simply nay-saying. Thanks for making me slow down and think today, Trevor.

  2. The Way Things Are Done:

    Start with 5 monkeys locked in a cage.

    Hang a banana from the roof on a string and place a set of stairs under it.

    Before long the monkeys will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana.

    As soon as the first monkey touches the stairs, hose the other monkeys with cold water.

    After a while another monkey makes an attempt with the same result. All the other are sprayed with cold water.

    Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

    Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and goes to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

    Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

    Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

    Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

    After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water.

    Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

    Why not?

    Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here. And that, my friends, is how company policy begins.

    Jessica, your comment reminded me of this old story…..thanks for contributing!

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