9 Virtues Blog

Critical Thinking: For Leaders, It's More Than Just a Buzzword

by Rob Jenkins


I’ve been writing periodically on this blog about overused leadership buzzwords, and I’d like to address another one here. This week’s example is perhaps more common in the field of education than in the corporate world, but it does have implications for leadership that go far beyond academe. The buzzword of the week is “critical thinking.”

I guarantee that, if you get a bunch of educators in a room and toss out the question, “What can we do to improve students’ learning?” someone in that room is bound to respond with, “I know—let’s teach more critical thinking!” And yet, chances are, neither that person nor most of the other people in the room will have any idea what critical thinking is or why it’s important.

Nevertheless, critical thinking, despite having become such a buzzword that hardly anyone knows what it means anymore, actually is something real. And it is important—crucial is more like it—especially for leaders. But before I explain, let’s first talk about what the term means.

Taking the two words in reverse order, critical thinking is first and foremost about thinking—about engaging our brains, grappling with difficult concepts, using logical processes to reach well-reasoned conclusions. Put that way, it sounds fairly self-evident, the kind of thing intelligent college graduates do all the time, just as a matter of course—right?

Well. Maybe. And maybe not so much. The problem is, we live in a society that has perfected the art of not having to think. For food, we can pop something in the microwave or hit the drive-thru. Hundreds of entertainment options lie at our fingertips. When driving, we don’t even have to think about where we’re going—we just ask Siri. (And next up: self-driving cars!)

Not that any of this is bad, necessarily. I’m all in favor of labor- and time-saving devices, because ideally they allow us to direct our efforts where they’re needed most. But the upshot of this no-thinking society is that to some degree we’ve lost the desire, and perhaps even the ability, to actually engage our brains and really think about something. It doesn’t come naturally for us anymore, if indeed it ever did.

Thus, if we’re going to think critically, we first of all have to train and discipline ourselves to think.

The second part of the equation is the word “critical.” In our modern parlance, to be critical means to be negative—to criticize. But of course that’s not what the word means in this context. Think of a movie critic. Her job is not to point out how terrible every movie is, but rather to evaluate films objectively, based on her knowledge of and experience with the industry. That’s what “critical” means in this context: objective, analytical, dispassionate.

Of course, human beings aren’t naturally objective. Once again, we have to train ourselves to take a step back from our own personal tastes, preferences, and biases, which is what being objective means. We have to be analytical, as well, which in this case (as in science) basically means to break things down into their component parts, just as a movie critic considers the script, the acting, the lighting, etc. And we must be dispassionate, which means to divorce our emotions from the decision-making process.

This is perhaps the hardest part. As human beings, we’re emotional creatures. But as professionals, and especially as leaders, we can’t base all our decisions on emotions. That way lies disaster, because emotionalism is neither fair nor rational. Think again of the movie critic. Suppose, 10 years ago, she was scheduled to interview a famous actor, but he blew her off. Now, 10 years later, she’s still carrying a grudge, still trashing every movie the guy makes just because he’s in it.

Is that any way for a professional to behave? Most of us would agree that it’s not. As a professional, the critic has an obligation to evaluate an actor’s performance as objectively as possible, regardless of what she thinks about him personally.

The same applies to the rest of us. As professionals, and especially as leaders, we have to be able to divorce ourselves from our emotions when it comes to making important decisions. Which is not to say that we should never consult our emotions; of course we should. Of course there are times when we have to take emotions—like compassion, for instance—into account. We just can’t allow ourselves to be ruled by our emotions, or allow emotions to override reason, because that can lead to injustice. In doing something that seems compassionate for one person, we may well end up being unfair to a lot of other people. And the only way we can see that pitfall in advance, and thus avoid it, is to think critically about the situation beforehand.

So, yes, “critical thinking” may be a buzzword, one you haven’t heard since high school or college. And yet it’s not only a real thing, it’s something that’s absolutely vital for leaders to master.  In my next post, I’ll talk about how they (how you) can do that.