Ability to think rationally and critically is one of the most important leadership skills and for the leader, thinking objectively is not just a skill, but also an obligation to the people they lead. People rely on a leader’s judgment and decisions taken by the leader impacts the team and individuals within the team. When in a driving seat, it is easy for leaders to get blindfolded with their past experiences, emotions and status-quo. How do you spot a leader who is also a critical thinker?
If you are hiring a leader or identifying someone from your existing team for a leadership position, here are 10 important traits to look for:
- They are curious and analytical. They are keen to understand and always look for right set of inputs (data, trends, perspectives) to derive their understanding. Simply put, they ask “Why?” very often to arrive at clarity. They are open minded to consider multiple (and sometimes conflicting) alternatives or viewpoints before they decide. They are well-versed with various analysis techniques.
- The know how to define a problem accurately. It is said that a problem well defined is half solved and critical thinkers recognize that. In difficult situations, they know that all problems cannot be resolved at once and hence their tendency to define problems accurately enables them to prioritize ruthlessly. They try to solve 20% of problems that addresses 80% of pain.
- They recognize various facets of problem before arriving at a solution decision. I have seen leaders who look for that one sign of problem before they jump to conclusions. Critical thinkers refrain from doing so and try to look at problems from various perspectives. They understand that a problem can be solved in many ways but they resist the temptation to provide quick-fix-straight-out-of-the-gut solutions. Sometimes, they even hold the judgment till evidences are prominently convincing.
- They address the root causes. Real problems are like an onion – with layers of perceptions hiding the root inside. Critical thinkers peel these layers off to get to the root cause. They understand that “why” comes before “what”, “how” and “when”, especially when solving the problems or taking important decisions.
- They are systematic and organized. I have seen that critical thinkers always build systems that help them spot the challenges easily. They are system thinkers who understand the interconnected nature of work. They build simple yet effective systems that enable them to get the data, insights and facts when they need. Systems allow them to focus on the right things.
- They are open-minded about disagreements. I once had a boss who would say “wow” when someone disagreed with his thoughts. When someone curiously asked why he did so, he said, “Disagreements are my opportunities to validate my own decisions and thinking. I value them.” He clearly demonstrated signs of a critical thinker.
- They are clear in their words and thoughts: Clarity drives them. They speak clearly, logically and objectively avoiding generic statements that may lead to ambiguous communication. They seek clarity and they try to give as much clarity as possible with required background information. They know it helps others.
- They know how to handle ambiguity: They know that the only way to navigate the way out of ambiguity and chaos is critical thinking. It is easy to be driven by emotion in high pressure and chaotic situations. Ability to manage ambiguity is absolutely essential to be able to consider alternatives, analyze and then decide.
- They practice empathy and listen: Since critical thinkers are genuinely interested in other people’s ideas, they are great listeners. They remain patient when others are talking and listen carefully to things being communicated verbally and through the body language and tone. They are empathetic about ideas of other people and give a due consideration to them.
- They are in control of their responses: I love the term “grace under fire.” It is only when a leader is able to control the emotions during tough situations that rational thought process can happen. They think before acting, practice restraint and control their feelings.