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The need for critical thinking in leaders now and in the future

This book excerpt is adapted from “Talent Leadership: A Proven Method for Identifying & Developing High-Potential Employees” (AMACOM, 2012), by John Mattone. Mattone is a leading authority on future trends of leadership development and talent management. He has been named by the Thinkers50 as one of the fastest-rising stars in the field of leadership development and by Leadership Excellence Magazine as one of the world’s top leadership consultants, coaches and speakers.

The word “thinking” can describe any number of mental activities. Much of a leader’s natural thinking, when left unchecked, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet the effectiveness of any leader depends precisely on the quality of their thoughts.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any given subject — in which the thinker improves the quality of their thinking by skillfully taking charge of its very structures and by imposing intellectual standards upon them. However, effective critical thinking involves consideration of the full range of possibilities to a problem, including emotional, cognitive, intellectual and psychological factors.

Shallow thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Successful leaders are able to apply what they know to the challenges of their work. All organizations today are not interested in hiring and retaining walking encyclopedias; rather, they require leaders who are independent decision-makers and problem-solvers and who can model this behavior to their people and teams.

Graphic courtesy of John Mattone

A strong critical thinker executes the following (RED):

  • Recognizes assumptions
  • Evaluates arguments
  • Draws conclusions

Pearson’s Watson-Glaser II Critical Thinking Assessment is the most widely used assessment of critical thinking in business today. It is the gold standard for measuring critical thinking ability and decision-making in high-potential professionals, new managers, experienced managers, and emerging leaders.

There is significant research by Pearson and other independent researchers that shows a strong relationship between higher scores on the Watson-Glaser and higher performance, greater upward potential, more effective problem-solving and decision-making, and stronger strategic thinking and planning skills.

In 2011, I conducted the Executive Development and Talent Management Research Study with my colleague Bonnie Hagemann, and we surveyed and interviewed hundreds of senior human resource executives from across the globe. Critical thinking was clearly identified as the No. 1 skill of increasing importance for leaders and future leaders today; however, according to these HR executives, only 1% to 28% are seen as “excellent” critical thinkers.

Authoritative research that exists clearly connects a leader’s and emerging leader’s critical thinking capability with their achieving higher-level performance and realizing their potential, and we know that business will be more complex tomorrow than it is today. Those two factors make this element perhaps the most pivotal leadership element for leaders, future leaders and organizations. Simply put, a leader’s ability to make sound decisions, problem-solve, plan and implement, and execute sound strategic thinking, are all based on superior critical thinking (i.e., RED).

Recognizing assumptions: Assumptions are statements that are implied to be true in the absence of proof. Identifying assumptions helps in discovery of information gaps and enriches views of issues. Assumptions can be unstated or directly stated. The ability to recognize assumptions in presentations, strategies, plans, and ideas is a key element in critical thinking.

Evaluating arguments: Arguments are assertions that are intended to persuade someone to believe or act in a certain way. Evaluating arguments is the ability to analyze such assertions objectively and accurately. Analyzing arguments helps in determining a confirmation-bias — the tendency to look for and agree with information that confirms prior beliefs. Emotion plays a key role in evaluating arguments, as high emotion clouds objectivity.

Draw conclusions: This involves arriving at conclusions that logically follow from the available evidence. It involves evaluating all relevant information before drawing a conclusion, judging the plausibility of different conclusions, selecting the most appropriate conclusion, and avoiding overgeneralizing beyond the evidence.