Critical Thinking and Leadership

I wonder how many people in business today have read the Platonic dialogue, “Meno”.  It is a brilliant short demonstration of the Socratic method, the way to get to the truth by asking the right questions.  In the dialogue, Socrates shows the nobleman, Meno, how he can guide a young slave boy to prove the Pythagorean theorem simply by asking him questions.  Imagine the joy in classrooms all around the world if we could get mathematics teachers to read Plato.

But the most important question of all is the first one regarding your prime objective, or in other words, your vision.  G K Chesterton typically put it in a nutshell when he said: “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”  Without a clear understanding of what the right thing to be achieved is, asking “what is wrong?” is meaningless. Ultimately, your answer to ‘what is right’ in every challenge will be shaped by your worldview, which brings us to the third and final question: why is critical thinking not used as it should be today?  There are two prime reasons: ideological thinking and the demise of education.

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.

In its war against truth, ideology distorts language, giving words meanings that are in outright contradiction of reality, making our unique human gift an instrument of control.  Orwell’s famous essay, Politics, and the English Language is essential reading for anyone committed to the principle of human freedom.  Wherever people try to shut down debate and force opponents into silence, ideology is at work, trying to suppress the truth that threatens the power its propagators seek to exert overall.

Amid all the ideological shrieking in western politics today, the worldviews of most people need honest personal auditing.  If you are unable to engage in a courteous dialogue with someone holding different views to your own, then you can be sure that you are shackled by ideological thinking.  Engage them, reason with them, and see if you are able to demonstrate where they may be going wrong.  Desmond Tutu gave us a wonderful reminder of this: “My father used to say ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.’”

Obviously related to the rise of ideology, the demise of education has been a life-threatening wound inflicted upon critical thinking.  State schooling is now about technical skills and social control.  The astonishingly rich heritage of learning that gave us Antigone and Achilles, Coriolanus and Camille, Hamlet and Heathcliff, Rocinante and Raskolnikov has been trashed as politically incorrect, and the cultural literacy essential to critical thinking shuttered.  There could be no clearer sign that the authorities do not want young people to think for themselves.

Of course, the fact that critical thinking is hard work also militates against its widespread use in a chronically self-indulgent society, but only a proper education could hope to cure that.  Sadly, it seems that most people in the West now believe that we can resolve all issues with management techniques rather than the hard work of critical thinking on which leadership is built.  But why align yourself with most people?  Questions, questions, questions.


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…