Coaching, executive coaching, global Leadership, mindfulness, Senior Executives

How critical thinking can help you improve your leadership skills


Critical thinking is a vital skill for leaders who are navigating the unpredictability caused by the pandemic.

Diane Halpern, a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and a widely read author on the subject, offers this definition in her seminal book, Thought and Knowledge:

“Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal-directed – the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions … it’s the kind of thinking that makes desirable outcomes more likely.”

Dr John Behr, an executive coach with 30 years of experience working with leaders, said:

“Leaders who develop their critical thinking are required to make clear, perceptive, solution-centric decisions which can be done by slowing down, stepping back, and moving themselves away from the immediate problem. This gives the leader space to look at the problem holistically, from the high-end, low-end and in a logical way, all the while, referencing other people’s points of view. It is a complex way of thinking and requires more energy than simply reacting.”

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a powerful concept that has been growing throughout the past 2,500 years.  The term “critical thinking” has its origins in the mid-late 20th century.

Critical thinking has been defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987 as, “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”

Based on this definition, we can determine that critical thinking is a skill which can be used to deal with conflicts or challenges from a turbulent situation in a reasoned, decisive, and productive way. The outcome being fair, objective, accurate, and based on relevant information.

The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal Assessment Tool

For years, businesses have trusted the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a commonly used assessment tool for reviewing the cognitive ability of current and future leaders. Developed in 1925, the model recognizes factors that are key to critical thinking and decision making and predicts judgment, problem solving, creativity, openness to experience, and other leadership behaviours.

Dr John Behr, has used this assessment tool previously, and has said:

“While I like and use the Watson-Glaser tool often in my executive coaching work, I do believe it offers an unfair advantage to those that are highly literate.

The Watson-Glasor tool is a good indicator of a person’s critical thinking capability – I have been using it for almost 28 years – it is actually a very popular method. In my time of using this method, I’ve found some people can be very effective critical thinkers but are not very skilled with the written language. Some may think more visually or conceptually, not necessary with the written word, they have a distinct disadvantage.

I’ve seen often that even if people do not perform well on the Watson Glaser, they can still be very effective critical thinkers, but they are simply people who are visual or conceptual in a non-verbal way or even have English as a second language.

Another way to determine or evaluate a person’s critical thinking ability is via a focused conversation, where they are faced with problem solving challenges and see how they go about the challenges. For example, are they more inductive or deductive in the way they think? I like to understand what the baseline is first. I sometimes get the Watson Glaser results after the interview, and it is good to see that often it corresponds to my own focused conversation assessment.”


How does critical thinking help leaders?

Leaders who are competent at applying critical thinking will process information differently than those who are not – They understand how their decisions or actions will impact an organization from all angles.

These leaders can offset department or team issues with broader company issues and embrace a larger responsibility for the success of the organisation. This keen sense of accountability is what enables them to execute for results now while fulfilling their obligations to positively impact the future.

The benefits of this kind of leadership skill are clear. Critical thinking allows leaders at every level to understand the impact of their decisions on the business as a whole and ensures both affiliation with organizational goals and accountability for outcomes.

Leaders who engage in critical thinking also understand the holistic organisation and how the individual parts operate together.

Dr. John Behr believes:

“To accelerate the adoption and increase leadership accountability to a higher level of understanding and action, there needs to be a further emphasis on critical thinking in leadership development.”

Can leaders learn to become critical thinkers?

Critical thinking is a skill that leaders can hone in on and develop.

Dr. John Behr said:

“There is substantial evidence that you can learn to think better. There is a misconception that great critical thinkers are born this way but thinking in general is a skill which can be practiced just as any other skill.”

As a leader, do you consider yourself to be a critical thinker?

  • Do you react quickly and make immediate conclusions, or do you use a well-reasoned strategic process as you work towards your goals?
  • Do you often put aside preconceptions and assumptions during key decision making?
  • Do you ask a lot of questions?
  • Do you use multiple sources of data before making a decision or coming to a conclusion?
  • Do you consider and analyze information from various perspectives and viewpoints?
  • Are you using the Internet as “one” source of information rather than “the” source?
  • Are you obtaining time and space to let your mind focus and reflect on vital issues?
  • Do you check tentative conclusions with your peers?
  • Do you engage peers, coaches or mentors to critique your thinking?
  • Are you open to other people’s ideas?

Critical thinking is critical in current business climates

In today’s fast-shifting and exceedingly competitive business world, the risks of poor decisions are greater than ever.

Critical thinking has always been a respected characteristic of leadership, but over the years, critical thinking has declined due to strong impressionability to the external environment.

In a world of increasing uncertainty, we need astute critical thinkers who can analyse a situation, realize the impact of their decisions on the whole organization, and take advantage of opportunities through reasoned decision-making.