Critical Thinking: The Difference Between Good and Great Leaders

 Critical thinking is an objective way to assess situations and take actions. It requires elimination of false assumptions and evaluation of criteria-based thought for the purpose of drawing analytics-based conclusions and actualizing organizational potential.

Critical thinkers are skeptics (this does not translate to pessimists) –…think Yoda, not Homer Simpson. Critical thinkers and skeptics seek alternative viewpoints (though don’t accept all views) from a non-emotional, yet emotionally-intelligent, non-biased, analytical perspective; they discover truths, communicate clearly and transparently, make decisions, and solve problems based on valid inferences and fact-based scientific comparisons and contrasts.

Why It Matters

Critical thinking is applicable whenever need arises to resolve a challenge. This happens regularly in all workplaces at all levels of leadership. Poor decisions almost always negatively impact, sometimes seriously so, business performance. To mitigate this risk, high-performing organizations rely on their leaders to be critical thinkers. In fact, our own research, and as corroborated by others, identifies critical thinking as the single most important skill for leaders and managers in all organizations:

What are the three most important skills required of leaders to successfully lead your organizations over the next 5 years (2010 – 2015)?


Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
Critical Thinking 2% 7% 17% 39% 35%
Collaboration 2% 7% 19% 40% 32%
Creativity/Innovation 2% 8% 34% 28% 28%

n =2100+ executives and managers

Source: P21, AMA, and Canadian Management Centre Survey 2010

Not only did those executives and managers surveyed identify critical thinking as the single most important leader skill, but three quarters of them also believe that critical thinking will escalate in importance this year, next year and in the years to come. The two top reasons underscoring that belief are the pace of change in business today and global expansion and competitiveness.

Anecdotally, the message is the same. Just yesterday, an executive recruiter contacted me for a candidate lead on a SVP Talent Management position recently vacated in global pharmaceutical. Upon reviewing the job profile, this is how the first bullet under the Essential Skills section read:

  • Must demonstrate strong critical thinking skills taking an empirical, rational approach to problem solving to move the organization in a positive direction.

Corporate and academic research dating as far back as 1985 (Ennis) and consistently through the years (1986 Sternberg, 1990 McPeck, 1992 Paul, 1998 Halpern, 1999 Bailin, 2002 Toplak, 2003 Runco, 2004 Lubart, 2007 Willingham, 2008 West, 2010 AMA/CMC 2010, 2014 Brandon Hall Group) shows that organizations with strong critical thinkers make better decisions, commit fewer mistakes, and outperform those who have a deficit in critical thinking skills. Ironically, however, research also shows that the preponderance of current and future leaders severely lack the critical thinking skills required to lead in the 21st century.

Having established what critical thinking is, and the need for it, let’s be clear on how to develop it.

How to Develop It

Fortunately, for the world of business, and particularly for those organizations that challenge themselves everyday to be high-performing, critical thinking is a learned skill. Developing the skill occurs over three steps:


Critical thinking is an applied skill that needs to be developed in leaders at all levels in all organizations. There is a perception among some that critical thinking is a challenging skill to develop. That perception is opinion-based and has no tangible evidence. Fortunately, for today’s organizations, following the 3-step process described here, or a similar one like RED, critical thinking can be learned. It is learned most quickly when the 3-step model is taught in the context of real-world business challenges where learners are encouraged to experiment, reflect on potential solutions, and recommend new courses of action and adopt new behaviors based on increasingly deeper discovery and awareness. Becoming proficient at critical thinking relies largely on a leader’s attitude and willingness to practice the RED-like techniques at every opportunity.

How to Assess It

Critical thinking skill is best assessed through the use of psychometric instruments employing either traditional multiple-choice items or open-ended prompts. Psychometric tests are practical, cost-effective, easy to use, and provide quick results. While published assessments are numerous, perhaps the most broadly used in business today to assess leaders’ critical thinking skills is The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, developed in 1925.

The Watson-Glaser is comprised of five sub-tests and assesses component critical thinking skills such as deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, drawing conclusions, eliminating bias, and evaluating arguments. This assessment, and others like it, is used for talent acquisition, leadership development, career management, and succession management purposes.

Leaders and other professionals with high scores on the Watson-Glaser assessment make business decisions that answer the right questions, solve the right problems, mitigate risk and improve productivity.

Improving your leaders’ critical thinking skills is one of the most invaluable skills to improving your business results. Critical thinking is the kind of thinking that makes desirable business outcomes more likely. If there ever was a time for clear, solution-centric thinking, this is it. Is your organization creating an environment that allows leaders to feel free to ask questions? Are your leaders critical thinkers? What do you think?

Until next time….

Laci Loew, Vice President Talent Management Practice and
Principal Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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