Why Critical Thinking is Critical for Today’s Leaders

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A critical skill that all successful leaders need, and should be looking for in their new hires, is yet often overlooked by many. Critical Thinking, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is characterized as “the process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you”.

With the current economic crisis, we all know what a failure of leadership looks like. Today, a growing number of leaders are accepting that the old, pre-crisis way of doing business is never coming back. We have to operate in the “new normal.” While some typical leadership strategies and skills will continue to be effective, leaders in this new era will need to lead and think differently.

Leaders at every level need critical thinking to understand the impact of their decisions on the business as a whole and ensure not only alignment with the organizational goals but also responsibility for the results.

The pattern of thinking that made leaders successful in the past may not ensure triumph in the future. Many studies recognize critical thinking as the primary requirement for successful leadership in the 21st century. Still, there is growing evidence that numerous current and emerging leaders lack this competency. It is this capability gap that is redefining leadership as we have known it for years.

The businesses that closed in the current crisis are clear examples of what happens when decisions are based upon flawed, partially untrue or incomplete information. It shows that when leaders fail to think clearly and tactically about the full implications of their actions.

Leaders must be ready to do things differently if they expect different outcomes. It is only natural that organizations will require a different mind-set from those at the helm.

Results are driven by behavior, and behavior is driven by thinking. So institutions that want to change the results – and, indeed, change the institution itself – can attain the highest leverage by changing the way their leaders and managers think.

An award-winning professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College, Diane Halpern says: “Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal-directed – the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions … it’s the kind of thinking that makes desirable outcomes more likely.”

Evidence shows that leaders (whether leading teams, departments, or enterprises) who apply critical thinking skills to their roles perform at a higher level and present their organizations a unique competitive advantage.

Critical thinkers understand how their decisions and actions impact the business both within and outside their individual functional areas. They are able to balance department issues with the wider company issues and undertake a more substantial responsibility for the success of the enterprise. This strong sense of responsibility allows them to accomplish immediate goals while positively impacting the future.

So, how to become a critical thinker?

The good news is that critical thinking is an attainable skill, and people can learn to think better. Leaders do not need to discard past learning; they instead need to build upon traditional competencies with a whole new set of skills, tools, and understanding.

They have to learn how to be astute, how to think clearly and wisely, and how to be accountable for their impact on the business.

As with any skill, the key to building critical thinking for achieving results is practice. Leaders need to get actively involved in the learning process and engage in the behaviors they want to learn. Participating in professional leadership courses is another way of developing these competencies.

Along with leadership courses, leaders can enhance their critical thinking by the following actions:

  • Obtaining feedback about their critical thinking skills from a trusted supervisor, coach, or colleague. They can be told whether they can put aside biases and assumptions during analysis and decision-making, or directly jump to conclusions.
  • Developing a deeper understanding of the company’s business, especially its financial and strategic drivers of success.
  • Utilizing various sources by asking a lot of questions and separating facts from assumptions before making a decision.
  • Spending more time on thinking. This means getting rid of distractions and focusing on important issues.
  • Asking for input and opinions from others by checking tentative conclusions with peers, coaches, or mentors.

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