Critical Thinking and Military Leadership

Rows of soldiers standing at attention, saluting their leader
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What do military leaders have in common?

Many wrongly assume that critical thinking was invented by academics or scientists and has only recently been introduced into military thinking.  But, the opposite is true.  The greatest military leaders in ancient times, including Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Attila the Hun, Gaius Marius, and others, had one important thing in common: they were all superior critical thinkers.

They applied their critical thinking skills of analysis, interpretation, inference, and evaluation to strategic, operational, and tactical problems of all kinds.

The same can be said about the great military minds today.

Effective leadership at every level is as much about thinking as it is about motivating and following through.  Plans must be devised and tested, adaptions made as conditions change, assumptions tested, and contingencies accounted for. To lead anything well is to solve complex ill-structured, real-time, problems and to make sound, informed decisions.

Why is critical thinking important for military leadership?

Successful leadership cannot happen without critical thinking.

Strong deductive reasoning skills are vital whenever contexts are precisely defined, whenever operational planning establishes firm deadlines. Deductive reasoning enables the leader to articulate the sequencing, define the performance tolerances, quantify the minimum and maximum limits, insure the provision of essential resources, and plans each event as a necessary condition for the next.

Strong inductive reasoning is essential when making decisions in time-limited contexts involving risk and uncertainty. Inductive reasoning enables the leader to function well with partial or inconsistent intel, when facing a clever and adaptable enemy, when evaluating the downside risks of unwanted secondary or tertiary effects. Using inductive reasoning leaders develop contingency plans, improvise tactical work arounds as conditions change, and judge when to move forward aggressively and when to pivot to an alternative approach.

Adaptation achieved through critical thinking is important at every level of the military and defense structure today, given the challenges of combating stateless terrorism and violent fanatical extremism.  Responding to these global and local challenges effectively is not the responsibility of the uniformed military alone. Local law enforcement and intelligence services have major roles to play, as do government officials. The need for critical thinking in our mutual defense has perhaps never been greater.

Statue of Julius Caesar wearing laurel wreath on head

10 key questions leaders use to trigger critical thinking in the groups they lead

  1. How is this situation like prior situations?
  2. How is this situation NOT like prior situations?
  3. What happens if we take this element out of the equation?
  4. What happens if we insert this factor into the equation?
  5. How is the problem changing over time?
  6. How can I adjust and adapt to those changes?
  7. Why are standard approaches consistently failing?
  8. How can I drive the chances to achieve advantage?
  9. Why are my people not seeing the complexity?
  10. Am I missing anything that other leaders are seeing?

Military leaders know that being prepared to think is as important as being prepared to fight.

Successful leaders discipline themselves and their people to interpret and analyze intelligence with care, to anticipate the obvious and the not so obvious consequences of alternative courses of action, to evaluate options objectively, and explain clearly to others what must be done and also why.  The mental disciplines most valued by thoughtful leaders are focus, foresight, intellectual integrity, professional and communicative confidence, forthrightness, and teamwork.

These disciplines of mind, like the skills, can be reinforced in the field by commanders who create and sustain a leadership environment that values thoughtful, well-informed, and thorough planning and problem-solving. These disciplines are best cultivated before deployment with the proper pre-service educational and in-service training regimens.

These instruments, available through INSIGHT Defense is calibrated for all levels of military organizations including officers and enlisted personnel in field operations, senior leadership and business operations.  The Military and Defense Critical Thinking Inventory (MDCTI) is calibrated for use with undergraduate and graduate level enrollees or applicants to military education programs and colleges.

History shows repeatedly that the advantage goes to the leaders who can think!

Evaluate critical thinking skills and mindset as part of the recruitment and training process.

Peter Facione, Ph.D. Founder of Insight AssessmentThis essay was contributed by Peter Facione, Ph.D.  Dr. Facione served as a civilian consultant to Joint Special Operations Forces and other branches of the military for several years. His work included presenting workshops in critical thinking for officers and senior enlisted personnel.  He is the lead author of the Military and Defense Critical Thinking Inventory (MDCTI) and the INSIGHT Defense assessments. These instruments, available through Insight Assessment, were developed in collaboration with military professionals and training personnel, to measure precisely these thinking vital thinking skills and essential disciplines of mind.  With Dr. Carol Gittens he co-authored Think Critically, Pearson Education, 2016.

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