Leadership Lessons: Critical Thinking Skills
Even though a few classic leadership skills and strategies continue to be effective, today’s volatile environment requires a different leadership skill set. By utilising critical thinking ability at every level, leaders can comprehend the impact of their decisions on the overall business of an organisation. It also helps to stay aligned with the organisational goals and be accountable for the outcome.
The mindset or thinking process that helped leaders to be successful in the past won’t necessarily ensure success in the in the future. Recent surveys have identified critical thinking is one of the primary requirements for a successful leader in the 21st century. There is also considerable evidence around emerging and current leaders lacking the ability to think critically.
Leadership in the times of the “New Normal”
In the times of economic disruption, turmoil and crisis we are aware of what a failed leadership looks like. For instance, organisations that folded in the GFC are classic examples of what’s the outcome when decisions are based on partially false, erroneous, or incomplete information when the prevailing management fails to think strategically and clearly regarding the implications of its actions. As an outcome of the fall-out, it ended the way business was done as usual and led to the creation of what came to be known as the ‘new normal’ which was quite different and people had never seen this kind of strategy before.
If organisations expect a different outcome, then they also need to be prepared to do things differently. Hence, in this dynamic business environment, it is a given that a different mindset is required from the leadership. The equations work something like this: It’s thinking that helps to drive behaviour, and it is behaviour that drives results. Hence, organisations that aspire to change their results and thereby change the organisation in itself, can achieve this feat by changing the way their leaders and managers think across the organisation.
The million dollar question that emerges here is that what kind of thinking or re-thinking is required from the leaders if they wish to be successful in the so-called ‘new normal’? Let’s take a look.
The importance of Critical Thinking in Leadership
According to Diane Halpern, when you utilize your cognitive skills or strategies that are likely to increase the probability of the desired outcome, it is considered as critical thinking. In other words, critical thinking is reasoned, goal-oriented, purposeful, and the kind thinking required during problem-solving, drawing inferences, calculating possibilities, and making decisions.
To gauge how prepared or ready the next generation of leadership talent is, Executive Development Associates (EDA) conducted an extensive survey on the trends, growth, and the evolution of executive development. During the investigation, EDA asked the senior executive development professionals to share their views on the strengths and weaknesses of those individuals in the organisation who are quite likely to fill in the executive level positions in the next three to five years. The survey identified a couple of hot topics in the realm of executive development for the coming two to three years. Amongst these hot topics, leadership topped the list, and it was then followed by strategic execution, talent management, business acumen, and leading or managing change.
When these senior executive development professionals were asked about the competencies that their leaders lacked, they came up with the following pointers:
- Thinking strategically
- Lead change
- Creating a vision and engage others
- Being able to inspire
- Being able to understand the overall enterprise and how the parts work as one
What does Critical Thinking Entail
Now that it has been established that there is a need for a paradigm shift towards critical thinking, it is important to understand what it means from a workplace perspective. Generally speaking, critical thinking is the ability to deal with problems and contradictions in a chaotic environment in a reasonable, productive, and purposeful manner. Through critical thinking, decisions are taken by adopting an approach that is objective, fair, accurate and based on facts that are relevant to the situation in hand. Critical thinking is focused, and reflective and it continually evaluates the process of thinking itself. Critical thinking requires you to be sceptical along with good judgmental skills.
Organisations have been relying since decades on a widely used assessment tool that evaluates the cognitive ability of present and future leaders. It is known as Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. This tool identifies factors that are significant for decision making, critical thinking, problem-solving, predicting judgment and a couple of other leadership behaviours.
The tool comprises of the following five sub-tests that measure critical thinking as an amalgamation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes:
- Recognition of assumptions
- Evaluation of arguments
Professionals who score high in these sub-tests can figure out and examine the influences, assumptions, as well as biases that may influence them. They take a step back from the conflict and strategically assess the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions, alternative solutions or approaches to problems. They take decisions that help to answer the apt questions, resolve the right kind of the issues, improve productivity, and mitigate risk. They are also able to motivate and inspire people and intellectually provide solid reasons for their actions. Irrespective of the fact whether these leaders lead departments, teams, or the organisation, they apply their critical thinking skills to their respective roles and thereby offer their organisations a competitive edge.
These leaders can understand how their actions and decisions influence the overall business of the organisation both internally and externally outside the realm of their narrow functional silos. They are also able to strike a balance between department or team issues with larger organisational issues and thereby embrace a larger scale of responsibility for the success of their organisation.
Critically thinking leaders are able to comprehend the overall functioning of the organisation as well as how the individual parts work together contextually. It is entirely different to understand one’s role as a leader and at the same time to be able to understand how to move in a certain direction and directly impact the larger outcome. Critically thinking leaders operate from a broader perspective so that they ensure the right kind of problems are addressed, and they take risks that are acceptable. They are also able to distinguish between short-term gains and sustainable long-term outcome and lead accordingly.
When an organisation has leaders that think critically, it is of great advantage as these leaders understand the impact of their decisions on the overall business. They thus ensure that the decisions they make are aligned with the organisational goals, and they are also accountable for the outcome. This kind of leadership behaviour is what is expected by the ‘new normal’. Hence it is important to emphasise on critical thinking for leadership development.
Critical Thinking Can be Taught and Learnt
The good news is that critical thinking is a skill that can be taught and learnt. Anyone can learn how to recognise and utilise critical thinking skills and how they can always get better than what they are. The challenge, however, lies in not to unlearn or discard what has been learnt in the past, but to build upon the existing traditional competencies with a new and more complex set of skills, sensitivities, and tools. Leaders in this ‘new normal’ need to learn how to think clearly, how to be discerning, how to think wisely, and how they can be accountable for their impact on the business of the organisation.
Discovering the Right Leadership Courses
Taking up the right leadership courses can significantly impact critical thinking. But the process is a tad more challenging than merely improving a behavioural skill, as it is not easy to measure critical thinking skills. Like any other skill sets, the key to build critical thinking is to practice, practice, and practice. The catch here is to frame the concept of practice within a relevant context. To acquire critical thinking skills, you need to actively participate in learning experiences that compel you to consider new ways of thinking and acting in a manner that is directly related to the contextual scenario that you are in.
Developing Your Critical Thinking Skills
Besides enrolling in the right kind of leadership courses, leaders need to be in charge of their critical thinking development by taking the following actions:
- Solicit feedback about your critical thinking skills from a trusted colleague, boss, or coach.
- Continually challenge yourself to develop a better and deeper understanding of your organisation’s business especially the financial and strategic drivers that warrant success.
- Always resort to multiple data sources to frame a web of information before you make a particular decision or arrive at a conclusion.
- Always take a good amount of time to think, focus, and reflect on important issues in hand.
- Always ensure that you ask for opinions, feedback, and critique from others. Be open and willing to accept others’ ideas and alternatives if need be.