In 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……