Cairn Leadership

Four Critical Thinking Skills for Leaders

Apparently, the Third Fleet Commander found out about the Bonhomme Richard catching fire in 2020 while he watched the news, NOT from his staff. So, when I started working as a battle watch captain in the Third Fleet Command Center, I learned that we had to watch Fox News and CNN on two monitors next to each other 24/7.

Now I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to watch these two completely ‘fair and balanced’ news sources next to each other, but it was shocking just how different the news stations reported the exact same stories.

99% of professors say that critical thinking is the single most important thing college students need to learn, but studies show that students leave school largely unequipped to think critically. The top three things employers wish new employees could do better are thinking critically, solving problems, and communicating effectively, yet critical thinking courses in the workplace are few and far between. Let’s change that!

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” How do you know you are making the right decisions and the things you believe are true? Here is a quick checklist to get you started.

Critical Thinking Checklist
Leaders need a go-to process to cultivate critical thinking personally and for their team.

What is Critical Thinking?

Why do we think? Researchers say it’s a way to resolve uncertainty. It’s uncomfortable to confront uncertainty in our lives, so we try to figure it all out. Unfortunately, we are not very good at it. We often defer to authority without evaluating what we hear. Great news for politicians and marketers, but not so great for us.

Critical thinking derives from the ancient Greek “to judge.” It is a tool to judge for yourself the validity of the myriad information and ideas you perceive. It’s a way to gather and evaluate the information and arguments on which you build your beliefs, make your decisions, and take action in your life. So how does it work?

  1. Get the facts.

It takes a lot of work to get the right facts. We like the guidance that the Foundation for Critical Thinking outlines about intellectual standards like accuracy, depth, and breadth. We dive into these with clients on adventures.

The bottom line, there is a lot of noise out there. There are flat-out lies, poorly articulated truths, and intentional miscommunications to sift through. You need to find ways to get complete and true information so that you have solid building blocks for your foundation. Start by identifying and questioning your assumptions and pushing your team to do the same. Then create and adhere to a clear intellectual standard as you sift through the information.

  1. Learn how to use logic.

We all think we use logic, but truthfully we do not. In Ancient Greece, logic was the core curriculum in school. If you start talking about inductive reasoning today, chances are people will be confused. Most of us have zero formal schooling in logic, but it’s a tool you need to employ as a leader. If you have facts, but they are not crafted into logical arguments, your beliefs could still be false.

Deductive logical arguments are math. For example, if A = B and B = C then A = C. Provided the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.

Inductive logical arguments are science. They are built on strong observed evidence. For example, if we have observed that the sun always comes up in the morning, and tomorrow begins in the morning, then the sun will come up tomorrow.

  1. Cast a wide net.

One of the myriad reasons for having diversity on your team is to ensure different perspectives when you solve problems. If everyone looks at every problem as a nail, you’ll start hammering the wrong things. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to find people who have the opposite beliefs from you, buy them a drink, and listen.

  1. Reconsider what you believe with certainty is true.

A core principle of critical thinking is intellectual humility. If like many people, you formed your beliefs in high school and have not rigorously reexamined them since then, you are due for some critical thinking. The moment you believe you are 100% right about something you should rethink it. If this strikes a chord for you, check out the book Think Again by Adam Grant. If your team holds any truths sacred, consider taking down the idols and ensuring you’re not the next Kodak Camera.


Ready to take your team to the next level through shared learning, applied skills, and coaching?