Ten Great Critical Thinking Questions Effective Leaders Ask

Rows of soldiers standing at attention, saluting their leader

Leadership is Critical Thinking in Action

The greatest military leaders in ancient times, including Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Attila the Hun, and Gaius Marius, were all superior critical thinkers. These historically effective leaders applied their outstanding skills of analysis, interpretation, inference, and evaluation to strategic, operational, and tactical problems of all kinds. The same can be said about the great leaders today no matter what their field of endeavor.

Effective leadership at every level is as much about thinking as it is about motivating and following through. Problems must be analyzed, plans devised and tested, adaptions made as conditions change, assumptions tested, and contingencies accounted for.

To lead well is to solve complex ill-structured, real-time, problems and make sound, informed decisions. 

Effective leadership cannot happen without critical thinking.

Strong deductive reasoning skills are vital whenever contexts are precisely defined, and when operational planning establishes firm deadlines. Deductive reasoning enables the leader to articulate the sequencing, define the performance tolerances, quantify the minimum and maximum limits, ensure the provision of essential resources, and plan 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, and when evaluating the downside risks of unwanted secondary or tertiary effects. Using inductive reasoning leaders develop contingency plans, improvise tactical workaround as conditions change, and when to move forward aggressively and when to pivot to an alternative approach.

Adaption achieved through critical thinking is important at every level of an organization, small or large, business, military, educational, governmental, etc. In today’s complex world, responding to these global and local challenges effectively is a responsibility shared by health care providers, first responders, educators, NGOs, businesses, law enforcement, governmental agencies, and our military and intelligence services. The need for critical thinking to defend and enhance our free and open democracy and the unfettered advancement of science has perhaps never been greater.

Effective leaders trigger critical thinking in themselves and the groups they lead by asking ten vital questions:

  1. How is this situation like the 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. What exactly is the problem, and is it changing over time?
  6. How can we adjust and adapt to those changes?
  7. Why are our standard approaches consistently failing?
  8. How can we seize the advantage?
  9. Why are our people over-simplifying the complexity confronting us?
  10. Am I, are we, missing anything that opposition leaders are seeing?

Effectively responding to these questions demands engaging our core critical thinking skills: interpretation, analysis, inference, induction, deduction, evaluation, explanation, and reflective self-correction.

Today we can measure the force of these skills scientifically. We do not have to wait for a blunder to know that a person is weak in one or more of these skills arenas. And more to the point, these are skills that can be strengthened through an educational process aimed at teaching thinking.

Equally important to critical thinking skills are one’s critical thinking mindset. The consistent internal disposition to address problems and to make decisions using strong, fair-minded, reflective reasoning is a habit successful leaders cultivate.

Successful leaders discipline themselves and their people to interpret and analyze intelligence with care, anticipate the obvious and the not so obvious consequences of alternative courses of action, evaluate options objectively, and clearly explain to others what must be done and 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 leaders who create and sustain an environment that values thoughtful, well-informed, and thorough planning and problem-solving. Successful leaders know that being prepared to think is as important as being prepared to compete.

About the Author

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 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.

 

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