Critical Thinking and Leadership

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?  Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees?  And when you think of this and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

~Dorothy Sayers in The Lost Tools of Learning (1947)

Here is our predicament.  Critical thinking is scarce.  Leadership depends on critical thinking.  Consequently, leadership is scarce.  Consider the facts.

In business and the professions, the reliance on mergers and acquisitions instead of creative competition to generate growth suggests a utilitarian preference for process overthinking.  And what line of reasoning has delivered the waste and inefficiency that has accompanied the bureaucratization of corporate life, the widespread preference for spending profits rather than investing them, the failure to articulate a cogent vision for the technological workplace of the future, seemingly endemic ethical scandals, relentless churn, and chronically disengaged people in business generally?

As Ross Douthat pointed out in a recent article, the hopelessly unprofitable Uber is “another case study in what happens when an extraordinarily rich society can’t find enough new ideas that justify investing all its stockpiled wealth.  We inflate bubbles and then pop them…and the supposed cutting edge of capitalism is increasingly defined by technologies that have almost arrived, business models that are on their way to profitability…

In politics, recurrent crises like out-of-control debt, uncontrolled immigration, environmental degradation, unaffordable healthcare, the student loan disaster, burgeoning education budgets that bear no fruit, constitutional breakdown, the massive human and financial costs of unremitting social dysfunction, and apocalyptic geopolitical nightmares all confirm that critical thinking has given way to incorrigible scheming in the corridors of power.  A now declining life expectancy in the US is not without its ironies.

Inevitably, excuses erupt from the people who preside over these predicaments, the current favourite being ‘complexity’.  But the most complex material entity in the known universe is the human brain – and we are still light years away from fathoming the depths of the mind.  So the reality is that we have some decisive advantages that we are not using as best we might.  The issues are just challenges, and we are able to see them as such for the simple reason that we are naturally equipped to address them one way or another.  As Einstein made clear:

The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”  By us, that is.

We have the intellect, the power of critical thinking.  But what is it exactly?  And how do we use it?  And why don’t we use it?  Let’s address these questions in that order.

As Aristotle told us, we are rational animals; we have conceptual reasoning, that is, intellect, over and above the purely perceptual reasoning we share with other animals.  For a dog or a cat, the present experience is everything, and thought is little more than anticipation, moving from this experience to the next.  A human person, on the other hand, has the innate urge to explain things; the question “Why?” is the mark of humanity and the essence of philosophy.  Answering the “why?” enables us to answer the question “where next?”  And we are enabled to shape our own future to a quite remarkable degree.

The Latin word ‘intellectus’ means ‘read from within’.  To think critically means to use our intellect, to get inside things, immersing ourselves in the issue that confronts us as we seek to understand the reality so that we can deal with it.  Critical thinking entails the objective analysis of an issue to enable one to form judgments, uncover insights, and generate innovative possibilities.

It is active, goal-oriented thinking.  Obviously it is different from jumping to conclusions, ignoring compelling evidence, reasoning from an ideological standpoint, template or formulaic thinking, and just ‘following your feelings’.

Our critical thinking faculties are free will (thinking for oneself is the first freedom), intellect (i.e. conception, abstraction, and logic), sense perception, instinct, language, memory, imagination, cultural literacy (a bank of knowledge, which should be well-stocked), and the emotional and attitudinal attributes of a lively, insatiable curiosity, confidence, practical wisdom, courage, self-discipline, a sense of justice, and a spirit of adventure.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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    • Thanks Lehan – it seems, one way or another, ideology is the problem we run into again and again in the course of a working day.

    • As long as we run into it with wide open eyes – and it takes tremendous patience and persistence (and often courage) to challenge it and bring some logic into conversations, strategies all the way through to operational activities.

  1. “The tragedy of the modern West is a susceptibility to ideological thinking, which is not thinking at all, but rather enslaving oneself to the oppressive ideas of others. Ideology is a narrow view of reality that excludes all evidence that contradicts it; it is about power and control. That makes it the enemy of critical thinking, which by definition is about reality, that is, truth.”

    Andre, with that paragraph alone, you’re a man after my own heart. If I were to comment (in the affirmative) on everything you’ve written here, it would be a book. I wouldn’t inflict that on you or anyone else. 😉 But I will share this:

    The late Kenneth Burke wrote: “An ‘ideology’ is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways: and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology happened to inhabit it.” (Language as Symbolic Action)

    As if to prove Burke’s point, I recently had someone tell me in an email exchange that he had no ideology. That contention was as absurd as it was un-self-aware because he wore his ideology smugly and intractably on his sleeve. As Orwell made us well aware (if we’d been paying attention), groupthink and identity politics are death of reason. And they’re the causal agents behind the fact that logic, empiricism, and common sense are dying arts.

    Along with 1984, Brave New World, and Frankenstein, I’d make your article here on BIZCATALYST360º required reading. If we don’t wake up, we’ll have no choice but to live with the monster we’re creating.

    Thank you for this beautifully reasoned, very important article.

    • Many thanks Mark – for your kind words, but also for your contribution to the discussion. You are quite right – the topic is huge and would need several volumes to cover.

  2. Andre,
    This is a wonderful article capturing the barriers to critical thinking in management today. I particularly liked the association of “brainstorming” and the power of questions. Your client example where critical thinking’s absence limited the decision maker to see new opportunities rings true. Many firms are trapped by habit. Look forward to your next article. Mary

  3. This is something that I miss from when I was little and we would go to my grandmothers house. She loved to debate and there would always be a lively discussion around current topics. The thing that I miss was that the discussions never became bogged down in judgment or who was right or wrong. There were never any fights over the personal viewpoints of one another. She had this gift of removing the emotional highs or lows from the topic and simply discussing the viewpoints. I believe our world needs more of the freedom of expression that she promoted.

    • Thanks Sheryl – parents and grandparents have such a vital role to play in developing the aptitudes and attitudes needed for purposeful thinking.

  4. This was such a well developed piece, Andre, which I really appreciated (you model critical thinking beautifully!). While I absolutely agree that, as a population, we’ve let our critical thinking skills atrophy, I’m not sure that the crisis is that we’ve lost the ability (or have never developed it in the first place) or no longer care about it.

    When I get to talk to emerging leaders in my work, I’m always incredibly impressed with their ability to think deeply about the topics at hand, yet most of them readily admit that they often don’t speak up in meetings with superiors. It’s not that they can’t. My suspicion is two-fold: I don’t think people give themselves permission or feel safe to speak their truth or their mind in business situations, so they shrink themselves back or wait for someone else to say something similar before jumping in. The second is that I think in our rapid-paced world we don’t give ourselves the time to really delve into issues at a deeper level. We, as Robert Ringer liked to say, aim to “Get in. Get done. Get out.” Critical thinking takes time. It takes time to examine problems, develop our thinking and articulate our arguments succinctly. Leaders often want the answers immediately and since nobody feels safe saying, “I don’t know. Let me explore this further.” they either don’t say anything at all or just provide a surface answer.

    • Thanks Kimberly – your points are well taken, and one hopes they will generate further discussion because, as you know, this is a very big subject. By the way, this is from Andre, not Anonymous…