Critical Thinking and Leadership

Critical thinking covers all active, goal-oriented thinking: problem-solving, decision-making, creative thinking, and employs both inductive and deductive methods of reasoning.  Faddish concepts like higher-order thinking are in reality just a repackaging of critical thinking, as can be quickly seen by perusing Bloom’s taxonomy – memory, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creation.

As Alan Sokal pointed out in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science: “A mode of thought does not become ‘critical’ simply by attributing that label to itself, but by virtue of its content.” 

An essential point to remember, though it is often ignored in our politically-correct world, is that all our thinking is conditioned by our worldview, the framework for the entire range of our cultural influences and commitments, social, political, economic, and aesthetic.  You cannot understand the way you or others think unless you understand the worldview in play, the sense of ultimate purpose, and the way in which the meaning of life is interpreted.

It takes a long time to develop sound critical thinking, but every step of the journey brings significant rewards.  The educational process for developing it must of necessity be an everyday activity so that critical thinking becomes a habit. Which brings us to our second question, “How do we use it?”  Well, the obvious starting point is checking the contents of our arsenal, all the critical thinking faculties identified above.  These have to be continually developed and actively exercised in the spirit of the old adage: use it or lose it.

I recently helped a general manager of an engineering firm tackle a crisis he had been brought in to resolve.  The highly reputable and once inventive company, headed by an aging entrepreneur who seemed to have at least one eye on retirement, had not only an impressive track record but had also demonstrated a creative expertise none of its competitors had yet been able to match.  The crisis had arisen as a result of a management failure to answer the question, “Where next?”  The CEO had become insular, the staff uneasy and looking elsewhere, and stagnant processes and profits were a cause for real concern.  The trouble-shooting general manager was desperate and isolated.

In two sessions of critical thinking, I helped him identify and articulate the very considerable potential possessed by the company to enter into an exciting new phase of growth that promised rich rewards for all concerned.  Three rigorously thought-out scenarios were detailed in the presentation that the general manager took to the CEO, with the far-reaching implications spelled out in each case.  Sadly, without offering any rational justification, the CEO opted for the status quo, with its sporadic sales, cynical workforce, and looming obsolescence and health and safety issues on the shop floor.  Critical thinking had for so long been dormant, that it was rejected when brought in to address the long-brewing crisis.

Psychological factors often stymie critical thinking, but at least everybody now knew where they stood, and knowing the truth is always empowering.  The general manager resigned and moved on to better things, soon to be followed by key members of staff.

The demands of this case typically employed the full range, critical thinking faculties, even if sometimes subconsciously.  Common sense told us the challenge was an under-performing company causing stress and anxiety for all concerned.  Our overarching goal had to be changing this situation to bring about the flourishing of the company and all the people involved, including the wider community.

Cultural literacy gave us Aristotle’s insight that all change involves the transformation of potential into actuality, so understanding the full potential of the company had to be the first step.  That meant understanding the CEO and the staff, and their motivations, and the business as currently constituted, as well as its history, how it came to be what it is.  Analysing the market, local and international, was also essential, and inevitably required all our professional expertise, experience, and insight.

Understanding the company’s potential enabled us to grasp the causes of the malaise, and to conceptualise the exciting possibilities open to it so that we could envision a future that would be rewarding for all.  Imagination and instinct helped us to see fresh and unexpected patterns in the same data that had been available to management before this exercise, and language allowed us to articulate our thinking, crystalize our ideas, and ask probing questions.

And that’s the nub of critical thinking – asking the right questions.  As W Edwards Deming put it: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”  What, after all, is a SWOT analysis other than an exercise to provoke questions?  And brainstorming has to start with a puzzle, which is just another name for a question that produces further questions.

Some years back, in a strategy workshop, I gave a list of questions (available on page 199 of Leaders and Misleaders) to a group of senior scientists.  Several of them headed business units, and one got back to me a few weeks later to thank me for the questions.  His general manager had been nagging him for an overdue business plan, and he decided to use the set of questions as a basis for a brainstorming session with his team of scientists.  The result was a business plan that had his general manager ululating.

There are many ways of provoking probing questions, and then reframing them so as to come at the challenge from different and unexpected perspectives, but it is the well-stocked mind that will always bear the most fruit.  G K Chesterton told us, “Thinking is connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.”  The more knowledge you accumulate, the more connections you will generate.  Cultural literacy determines the reach of your critical thinking.


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.

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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…