A Prerequisite for Exceptional Leaders

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During the 2008 election, David Letterman took to the streets and interviewed voters.  He showed Obama supporters McCain’s positions and asked them if that’s why they were voting for Obama.  They said yes.  Then he showed McCain supporters Obama’s positions – and they too agreed that’s why they were voting for McCain.

That was a seminal moment for me.  I realized how the lack of critical thinking training and skills in this country was impacting our way of life.  Critical thinking improves the quality of your decisions and your integrity by enabling you to be informed by the thoughts of others, the evidence, and your core values. 

I taught a class on critical thinking at Belmont University as adjunct faculty for two years.  We looked at various issues in the US and applied CT skills.  Whether our classes revolved around the fight for civil rights, the power of voting, religious movements in the US, the influence of advertising, or choosing integrity, the discussions were lively and deep.  One student who went on to law school has stayed in touch and shared with me how much the class changed her perspective.

There aren’t any studies I can find that show how many people practice thinking critically.  My best estimate would be that 75-80 % of the population doesn’t practice it at any level   This is demonstrated by people who simply repeat what they’ve heard, or take a side without being able to defend their choice.  Have you ever received an email or seen a Facebook post that seems flat out wrong?  I once got one that pictured an Al Qaeda march in Michigan.  When I researched the photo, I found it was originally taken in Pakistan and then used by someone to foment fear and anger.  Those who simply forwarded it or shared it were failing to think for themselves and had a negative impact on others. 

That leaves 20-25% of the population who may be applying some critical thinking skills.  When done well, it includes researching and analyzing both sides of an issue, then looking for evidence you can observe that supports the side you think is strongest.  At the highest level, critical thinking then merges your analysis of the issues with your values and includes subjective thought.

Robert E. Lee practiced critical thinking in April1865 when he made a choice to defy President Jefferson Davis and commit what could be considered treason and insubordination when he surrendered to General Grant.  His letters gives us glimpses into his struggle between what was commanded vs. what was right. He analyzed both the arguments for surrender and for continuing the fight, looked at the evidence around him that supported both, merged his thinking with his faith, and choose to surrender.   His choice was the beginning of the end of our civil war.

As we face challenges in our companies and our country in the coming years, as leaders, we MUST learn to practice critical thinking in our own lives.  For those we work with and do life with, we must also teach and model it.  A prerequisite for exceptional leaders is encouraging discussions and debates of issues that are done with critical thinking, respect and dignity. 

Did you know Hitler won leadership over the Nazi party in 1923 by ONE vote?  How might that outcome have been different had one more person thought more deeply about his or her choice?  How could your life, your leadership, and your integrity be changed by critical thinking?