How to Use Critical Thinking to be a More Effective Leader

With January arrived the opportunity to write an impactful blog post. I wanted to begin the year with a meaningful message and not just any concept would do. The content had to be gripping and inspiring.

Day after day slipped by and my writing pad remained blank. I was so entangled in the mental trap of creating something significant that I. Wrote. Nothing.

Grrrrrrrrrr. How had I let that happen?

A rainy Saturday provided the perfect backdrop for figuring it out. The first breadcrumb of insight came with remembering advice literary agent Rachelle Gardner had shared with me:  sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

In writing, the phrase “kill your darlings” means removing something precious that doesn’t move the story along. Extrapolating this writing concept to my thinking yielded the erroneous belief that my post must be profound. I had accepted that “darling” as a truth, which had become a stumbling block to action.

Now on to exploring the reason for my stumbling block. Another mug of coffee sipped to the cadence of pounding rain yielded another insight:  that “darling” was a false truth, one that I had allowed to mess up my thinking. Where is it written that the first post of the year must be momentous? I’d placed crazy pressure on myself all because of an illogical, self-imposed belief. Sheesh, why had I done that?

While dreamily watching the water level rise in the pond across the street, I had my last aha:  what I was doing at this moment—thinking critically—is what I had neglected to do earlier. I had ignored the red flag of a strongly held belief; and, as a result, I failed to analyze and evaluate my thoughts. This is a perfect illustration of what Drs. Linda Elder and Richard Paul call the “inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked,” i.e., when critical thinking is absent.

Critical thinking:

“…is thinking about one's thinking in a manner designed to organize and clarify, raise the efficiency of, and recognize errors and biases in one's own thinking.  One uses critical thinking to improve one's process of thinking.” ~ Kirby Carmichael

“…is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.”     ~ Dr. Linda Elder

“…calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.” ~ Edward M. Glaser, PhD

“… is reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions…and reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.” ~ Robert Ennis, Professor

Critical thinking isn’t only about what goes on in our minds. Our thoughts and beliefs significantly impact our feelings. It’s that intricate tango between the logic of the head and the emotion of the heart.

In their article, The Thinker's Guide to Intellectual Standards, Drs. Elder and Paul present a list of critical thinking strategies that cut across both thinking and feeling. Seven items on that list are now on a sticky note affixed to my pencil cup. Items one through three are rooted in feelings; the remainder address thinking.

  1. Explore thoughts underlying feelings and feelings underlying thoughts.
  2. Develop intellectual humility and suspend judgment.
  3. Develop intellectual perseverance.
  4. Clarify issues, conclusions, or beliefs.
  5. Questioning deeply: raise and pursue root or significant questions.
  6. Examine or evaluate assumptions.
  7. Give reasons, and evaluate evidence and alleged facts.

With a thoughtful mix of self-awareness and self-discipline, these seven items are doable. Making them real becomes a matter of making the time to reflect and to ask the right questions. Elder and Paul note that the “development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a lifelong endeavor.” That gives me hope for staying on track because I know working on being a better me is an endless pursuit.

The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.  ~Albert Einstein

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