“Critical thinking skills”- Imperative for leadership

Robert Mandeya
People management issues

Just recently, Advanced Level results were out and people were busy sharing schools and individual students who excelled in these exams. In one of the WhatsApp groups I belong to someone posted results of one school which had the highest number of A level candidates with strings of “As” in three or more subjects. One of the comments from one of the group participants caught my attention. It said: “This is good but only a handful from this school are in managerial positions. They are taught to pass, not critical thinking. In any day, I would prefer someone from a different school.” This response got me thinking and made me to somehow realize how lacking our education is in inculcating critical thinking in students. Many of us are victims of this education system.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the art of being able to evaluate an issue non-judgmentally — thinking about an issue from all perspectives, evaluating different alternatives without getting wedded to any particular alternative. I was a student of literature myself and I remember my literature teacher telling us that critical thinking means not taking what you hear or read at face value, but using your critical faculties to weigh up the evidence, and considering the implications and conclusions of what the writer or speaker is saying.

Critical thinking versus reactive thinking

Imagine two situations. On the first, you are on a country walk and you come across a notice which tells you not to attempt to climb a fence because of risk of electrocution. Would you pause to consider before obeying this instruction? On the other hand, suppose you were to receive a letter from a local farmer announcing that he proposed to put up an electric fence to protect a certain field. In this case, would you not be more likely to think about his reasons for doing so and what the implications would be for you and your family? In the first case, you are thinking reactively and in the second, you are thinking critically. The key to critical thinking is to develop an impersonal approach which looks at arguments and facts and which lays aside personal views and feelings.

Critical and analytical thinking should be applied at all points in academic study — to selecting information, reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Developing critical thinking

Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity. But most of it is dormant; most is undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, in ballet, or in playing golf. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we do not do the work required for improvement.

Development in thinking requires a gradual process requiring plateaux of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker simply because one likes it. Changing one’s habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker require an extended period of development. How, then, can we develop as critical thinkers? How can we help ourselves and our students or children for that matter to practice better thinking in everyday life?

Thinking through coaching

In coaching we often take participants through certain stages required for development as a critical thinker. These stages expose the participants to significant problems in their thinking to raising their awareness to problems in their thinking. We develop through these stages if we: accept the fact that there are serious problems in our thinking (accepting the challenge to our thinking) and begin regular practice. There are about nine strategies that any motivated person can use to develop as a thinker.

The key point to keep in mind when devising strategies is that you are engaged in a personal experiment. You are testing ideas in your everyday life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in light of your actual experience. For example, suppose you find the strategy “Redefine the Way You See Things” to be intuitive to you. So you use it to begin. Pretty soon you find yourself noticing the social definitions that rule many situations in your life. You recognize how your behaviour is shaped and controlled by the definitions in use.

Critical thinking is the art of using reason to analyze ideas and dig deeper to get to our true potential. Critical thinking is not about thinking more or thinking harder; it is about thinking better. Honing your critical thinking skills can open up a lifetime of intellectual curiosity. But the journey is not all rosy.

Critical thinking requires a lot of discipline. Staying on track takes a combination of steady growth, motivation, and the ability to take an honest look at yourself, even in the face of some uncomfortable facts.

Why it matters

Perhaps the most important element of thinking critically is foresight. Almost all decisions we make and implement do not prove disastrous if we find reasons to abandon them. However, there are things that get in the way of simple decision making. We all carry with us a range of likes and dislikes, learnt behaviours and personal preferences developed throughout our lives; they are the hallmarks of being human. A major contribution to ensuring we think critically is to be aware of these personal characteristics, preferences and biases and make allowance for them when considering possible next steps, whether they are at the pre-action consideration stage or as part of a rethink caused by unexpected or unforeseen impediments to continued progress.

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.