In my talks on leadership I frequently point out that the one thing that makes leaders different from everyone else is that THEY DECIDE! Though the effective leader wants to be open to input from as many perspectives as possible, the leader is the ultimate decision maker and must also decide when he/she is going to decide! As a result critical thinking is essential if a leader is going to make the best possible decisions in today’s complex and ever changing world.
Obviously, that begs a very important question – how do we define critical thinking? While there are various definitions, the one I like is as follows:
Critical thinking is the ability to effectively receive information, recall prior information, assimilate information by comparing differences and determining cause and effect, and evaluating the information to make decisions and solve problems.
This has to be done in a timely fashion to insure sound execution by the team. Leaders must seek to develop their critical thinking skills, and there are numerous historical examples where it was not done well. Here are some illustrations:
“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty…a fad.”
— President of Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
“I don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out….”
— Decca Record Executive on turning down the Beatles
“Video won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
— Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox Studios, on television in 1946.
How then does a leader develop critical thinking skills and what pitfalls are there? In reality, the best approach is to consider the scientific method. First, identify the question and associated problem. This may sound easy, but in reality it is both fundamental and hard. It is fundamental because failure to do so may move all of the organization’s analysis in the wrong direction. Taking the time at the outset to really ascertain what is the real problem and associated question is key. Second, formulate a hypothesis. Why are things occurring in this fashion that presents our team with a problem? Third, seek relevant data. This can also be difficult because we now have so many means to extract data. Consequently, it is essential to question whether or not the data is valid. How was it gathered? Is it a representative sample? What definitions were used? What are implicit and explicit assumptions associated with the data. Fourth, test the hypothesis and evaluate the results. Finally, from the analysis, draw reliable conclusions that are appropriate to your organization while carefully considering your mission, vision, and values.
Based on my experience in the military, government, academia, and business, I have formulated the following list of McCausland’s Laws that may be helpful as you develop these critical thinking skills:
Never assume logic plays a role, particularly when dealing with bureaucracies.
For every problem, there is a short-term seemingly easy solution that is often the worst thing you can do in the long term.
When explaining how something happened, do not neglect the possibility that your opponent/competition just screwed up.
Long range planning may only be tomorrow afternoon for your organization, BUT it is still really important and somebody needs to do it.
If two people agree on everything, one of them is not thinking at all.
Facts are important but placing them in the correct context is REALLY important.
Don’t forget that your opponent/competition can influence your strategy and decision.
Leaders in the 21st century would be wise to consider the words of Alvin Toffler, a futurist and author of the book Future Shock. Toffler observed, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”