The Importance of Critical Thinking to Successful Leadership

Bryan Zaslow

Nov 16, 2021


There’s a crisis brewing in the business world, but almost nobody has been paying attention to it.  

More and more evidence points to a lack of critical thinking skills in today’s youngest aspiring leaders down to today’s college graduates. The Wall Street Journal reported that after four years of classes, students at some of the country’s most prestigious universities don’t show any improvement in critical thinking skills.

This lack of critical thinking skills is causing what one expert calls a “competency gap” in the newest crop of leaders. According to a survey released by Morning Consult, 64% of employers say it’s difficult to find qualified applicants with critical thinking skills. That’s more than any of the other so-called “soft skills” that employers say they urgently need.

In business, critical thinking is independent thinking that isn’t clouded by bad advice, misleading assumptions, or personal biases. It is the ability to see past public opinion and popularity polls. Do you see a correlation between this and emotional agility, which I discussed in great detail in one of my previous posts? Critical thinking allows leaders at every level to evaluate their decision-making and how these decisions ultimately impact results across every part of an organization. 

The leaders who stand out from the crowd as critical thinking rock stars are balanced thinkers who are aware of their own feelings and emotions, as well as those of the people around them, but can set them aside when making a decision. An example could be reacting emotionally to a story. A critical thinker knows there are always at least two sides to the truth and takes the time to put away their initial reactions, uncover the facts, and react thoughtfully. 

Personally, I think that critical thinking is one of the top job requirements for me as a parent of two teenagers. I want to spring into action every time my daughter shares a story filled with emotions about how someone has been mean. The reality is that her story is best handled by setting aside my own emotions and guiding her with care and thoughtfulness that perhaps she is a participant to that chaos as well.

Critical thinking is crucial in the current economic climate. In the “new normal” of the post-pandemic era, leaders have to be more than brilliant spokespeople or charismatic figureheads. They also have to be strategic and forward-thinking, with an emphasis on forward thinking. What made a leader successful in the past is often not what will make them successful in the future.

I want to offer a couple of things to help you work on and develop your critical thinking. Here are a few traits leaders with good critical thinking skills share:

They question assumptions. Just because something is true today, or has been true for a while, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be true tomorrow. Financial firms learned that lesson after the meltdown in 2008. We all faced that fact in 2020 when Covid-19 shut down offices and businesses around the world. “Crisis can bring out the best critical thinking,” John Baldoni wrote in Harvard Business Review, “because it forces you to question how and why you ended up in trouble.”

They are open-minded and curious. We all have certain biases based on our personal experiences. We were successful when we did something before, so there’s no reason to do it differently now. But critical thinkers know that the latest data can point to different ways of accomplishing something. New technology can speed up a process that was otherwise working just fine. They gather all the information they can before making a decision. Exceptional leaders know they need to draw on past experiences, but can’t let them be their only criteria. Leaders must ask questions.

They seek out other perspectives. We all fall into this trap: We trust the people that we work most closely with, so we don’t see the need to cast a wider net. But the best leaders look for other opinions. They talk to people outside of their inner circle who might have an interesting point of view. They reach out to peers outside their company or even outside their industry. They might end up making the same decision, but they have heard what others have to say.

They observe and listen intently.  There is so much to learn from the people that you lead, both individually and in groups. Whenever possible, spend time with them. Be inquisitive and curious. Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Pay attention to their concerns and challenges. You might find valuable information about what can be improved in your organization. A deeper exploration of the situations people bring to your attention can result in a big win for you, your teams, and your companies.

They are comfortable with change. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict everything that’s going to happen. We all have to be adept at what’s known as “managing ambiguity,” or being comfortable not knowing every possible variable. We must be able to make decisions often with limited knowledge.

Business schools have largely given up teaching critical thinking and other soft skills, largely because education has become more and more transactional: “If I’m paying this much for a college degree, how much can I expect to make when I graduate?” Also, business degrees have become more and more specialized. There are additional required courses in their major, so what gets left behind are the liberal arts classes. The only business school students learning critical thinking are those that specifically seek them out (or those, like me, that put their entrepreneurial spirits to work in startups and side hustles while still in school).

The good news is that like any other skill, critical thinking gets better with practice. If you have team members who you can see moving into leadership positions, it’s time to start passing along some of your knowledge. When you can, include them in the decision-making process, taking them through the steps you go through when solving a problem. Talk about why this particular solution made sense for your teams or company.

When they grasp the concept, let them come up with the solutions on their own. Don’t weigh in until they have explained their thought process. Ask them about alternatives they considered and the pros and cons of each.

You’ll know when one of your employees is a potential leader when they can move from making recommendations about a problem you bring to them to generating ideas on their own. Chances are they’ll become an even more valuable member of your team as time goes by. As it gets harder and harder to hire people with great critical thinking skills, you’ll be able to promote from within.

We’re in the middle of a crisis of leadership, but you can turn the “competency gap” into an advantage for your company. Make critical thinking a priority in your organization. Nurture your staff’s abilities. As your competition is searching for candidates with the right skills, you’ll already have them on your team.