Leaders Must Practice Critical Thinking
I recently heard about a leader who is in charge of a medical operation. She was asked to solve a problem by the physician/owner, a friend of mine. After two months, nothing had changed. My friend inquired what had been done. The leader responded, “I asked the staff to comply and they did, but the physicians are not cooperating. I definitely asked them several times. It was like this in my previous jobs as well. Doctors are just hard to manage.” My friend was frustrated as to why this supposedly accomplished leader could not go beyond simply asking people to comply on this issue. She wondered why some people cannot seem to apply critical thinking to work through problems.
This story brought to my mind a subject I have been thinking about for the better part of a year. Leaders must be able to practice critical thinking in order to solve problems. It is a major problem I see in many leaders, a tendency I even see in myself if I am not careful.
Here are three questions about critical thinking that we must answer:
- What is it?
- Do I practice it?
- Does my leadership staff engage in it?
Thinking about all the leaders I have led and trained, I see five steps of development that we go through on our way to the critical thinking stage. The developmental stages are:
- Project Manager
- People Manager
- Critical Thinker
- Motivate others toward critical thinking.
Allow me to describe each step to help you analyze where you are in the chain of development and help you assess the leaders who work with you and for you.
Some people never get off the ground and are not able to achieve Step One. Others stop at Step Two. But the majority make it to Step Three and never advance. They look like a leader because they lead people, but they never get to Steps Four and Five where they excel in critical thinking, a must for successful leadership.
Step One: Succeed as a professional.
In this step, people learn the basics of professional work. They bring to bear their character and habits they learned from home and previous work experience. Here are the tests they have to pass before they are usually allowed to proceed to Step Two: Do I work hard? Am I dependable? Do I show up on time? Do I demonstrate honesty so that people trust me? Do I have the professional training and experience to meaningfully contribute to a team? Do I complain? Do I point fingers? Am I emotionally unpredictable? Am I hurtful in my words?
In pre-med undergraduate training, many classes had nothing to do with medicine, but were designed to weed out the students who did not have it in them to work hard. Similarly, this step weeds out a vast majority of people. As I look at the people who have worked with me, there is no way I would give leadership roles to those who cannot pass this step successfully. If I cannot depend on a person to perform their professional role effectively, consistently, and without drama, then how can I depend on them in more critical areas like leading people and taking care of business matters?
Naturally, some finish this step well and are usually given a chance, if they so choose, to advance into the world of leadership. Of course some do not graduate from this step and are advanced anyway, most of the time causing much damage to teams they lead and the organization as a whole.
Step Two: Succeed in project management.
In the next step toward leadership, people are often given projects to handle, not people-tasks, rather projects to manage, starting with the less consequential, then moving on to larger, more important ones. Here are the tests we have to pass: Do I finish projects successfully? Do I do a thorough job? Do I finish projects on time? Do I finish them without causing drama? Do I finish them without asking a million questions, so that it seems that my boss did all of the work? Do I use tools and project management techniques to finish the projects, such as flow charts? Can I focus on the project, or am I distracted and never get it done?
This is another step that filters people and prevents them from moving forward into leadership if they are unprepared. While leaders in this step can handle critical thinking, most often it is to execute solutions that have already been thought through. If a person cannot handle project management successfully, we usually do not move them to higher levels. As a leader, you have to be trusted without being micro-managed to finish projects on time and motivate others to do the same. If a person cannot successfully complete projects alone, it is unlikely they will be able to do it while leading others.
Some will finish this step and be ready for an official leadership role in which they supervise people.
Step Three: Succeed in managing people.
Here is the heart of leadership: people. I usually prefer to give a leadership candidate one person or a small team to see how they do, then bigger teams, or in the context of medical clinics, entire teams, then several clinics, and finally an entire organization. The tests here are big, and the learning curve is large. Success hinges on the emotional intelligence of a person, their willingness to be coached, and their ability to push themselves to learn and survive failure. This is a lifelong journey, and many times we want to quit because leading others can be very hard. This is where we must understand mission, vision, and culture. We must understand organization, goals, entire business concepts, and how to bring people along with us to engage, participate and come together in harmony and passion.
So much effort is usually placed on taking people to this level as well as a lot of resources, a lot of time and energy, and a willingness to sustain losses as this leader experiments at this level. Looking back over the last 15 years of my leadership roles, when people get to this level, it is about a 50/50 chance whether they will succeed or not. This is a step where you have to be careful to serve and support these leaders because they are carrying the heavy load of leading front line staff. Those who succeed in this area are a badge of honor on the chest of the organization. It usually takes a year or more for everyone to know and see that this leader can pull it off. Then everyone relaxes. They made it. They will be an asset. Their life has now taken an upward turn. They can lead people.
In this exuberant jubilation lies the problem. For those of us who lead these leaders, we tend to leave them alone. After all, in our minds, they have graduated. They have just joined our league of people leaders. We forget that there are two more critical steps in their development. They look busy, effective, and people love them. But if we leave them alone, they can fail, just like the leader above who works for my friend. She has an impressive resume, the entire company respects and loves her. She looks legit. She dresses well, talks the talk, and walks the walk. But she does not do critical thinking to solve the big problems of the organization.
My friend, if you or your leaders are stuck at this level, your organization will not climb to higher levels.
Step Four: Succeed in critical thinking.
What is critical thinking? It is the ability to take problems and solve them. Big problem take big thinking, complex thinking, creative thinking, serious and laborious thinking, long term thinking, multi-layered thinking. [For more, see my article: Blocking Time to Think.]
If you halt an entire process because the doctors have been reminded several times and just not complied, that is simply shameful for the leaders in charge. Have you talked to each one individually? Have you isolated their motivation? Have you assessed their incentives? Have you created metrics to share with them monthly, weekly, or quarterly? Have you created a case for them to want to comply? Have you scheduled meetings where everyone’s data is shared so there is shared accountability? Have you spent hours with a pen and paper thinking about how to get them to move? Critical thinking is about solving the big problems, the little problems, making changes, improvements, challenging the status quo, facing the stubborn wall of “we’ve tried so many times, and nothing works.” Leaders who practice critical thinking understand that their job is not to simply go through the motions and routines of an organization, presiding over a moving train that no one can stop.
Oh, how we need more critical thinkers in leadership! Critical thinkers challenge themselves, first and foremost. They push their thinking, confronts their emotions, thoughts, and habits. These leaders discipline themselves to create time to think, and refuse to surrender to the same levels of operation in the teams they lead. [For more on this, check out my article: Sustained Thinking]
Here is a simple test to know how well you or the leaders around you do in this area. When was the last time you solved a big problem for your organization? How often do you take on big problems and solve them? How many big problems are on your plate now that you are trying solve? Big problems or challenges must be wrestled with using critical thinking.
Very few leaders do well in this area. Most leaders surrender to the big scary problems and subsequently ignore them. They hide behind the facade of leading big teams of people who are doing a great job. They even hide behind streamlined cultures that empower individuals. But lurking underneath it all is a boiling earth about to erupt like a volcano. That’s why companies and organizations die. These are the Blockbusters and the Blackberries. And that’s where your organization and mine will end up if we are unable to face the big and small issues and practice critical thinking to work our way out of them.
Step Five: Succeed in getting others to think critically with you.
Those who can succeed in Step Four of critical thinking will finally reach the stage of creating organizations and teams where critical thinking is modeled, expected, and taught, organizations that are able to harness the mental energies of others and bring others along to think critically with us.