3 Thinking Skills That Strong Leaders Must Have

3 Thinking Skills That Strong Leaders Must Have

3 Thinking Skills That Strong Leaders Must Have


Strong leaders must have robust and balanced thinking skills. These skills are critical prerequisites for high performance as they are needed to process information and then communicate clearly business plans and strategies. Leaders must know how to manage words and information. However, we live in a time when people’s writing and verbal skills seem to be declining.

I was listening to a leader at one of his staff meetings and he got into discussing the critical issue of leading with integrity. When asked to clarify what he meant by this, he said: “well, like, do the right thing.” He appeared stuck and was unable to be more definitive or to illustrate with an example or story that depicted what he would see as being “of integrity”. And this was from an engineering director with an MBA from a credible school.

My emphasis on verbal and writing skills is based on the principle that much of our thinking is rooted in language. We use words to share thoughts with others as we create plans and actions. So, determining the depth and richness of these thinking and communicating skills is an important step in building an effective management/leadership team.

I suggest looking at three thinking skills to start:

Balance in Thinking

Achieving good balance in thinking depends on four key attributes:

1. Logic

Logical thinking keeps us organized, predictable and successful, particularly when looking to fit and/or match a specified outcome.

This type of thinking is important in standard work, lean manufacturing, and areas where repeatable systems are critical for quality or reliability. It follows if then statements. Such as: fire burns flesh, I don’t like pain, burned skin hurts, I will avoid fire.

2. Creativity

Creativity is important for innovative, inventiveness, and arriving at new and unique possibilities.

Whereas logic tends to build on what is known and proven, often “outside the box” creativity can produce more positive solutions than the first obvious logical choices. Many great discoveries have come from illogical, crazy, thoughts. A good resource for exploring this is in Edward de Bono’s I am Right and You are Wrong: From water logic to rock logic.

3. Detail

How do you balance awareness of all the details around you without getting buried in the fine details?

Some jobs, or parts of a job, benefit from high attention to detail where others rely more on a big picture focus.

4. Learning

Finally, how avidly and consistently does an individual acquire new information and experiences to broaden and enrich their thinking resources?

What and how often do they read, watch TED talks, go to training seminars, etc.? Do they apply this new information and build it into useful and productive habits?

For hiring and development purposes, three pieces of data will help you get a good gauge of their balance in these thinking areas: biographical information; test information; and questionnaire and interview information. The resume and school transcript will indicate if there is a balance in a person’s curriculum, e.g., English, Math, Arts, Science, and extra-curricular activities.

Pay attention to the range of scores in standardized exams such as the ACT, GRE, or SAT.  And ask about their interests and skills in any of these areas. Short problem-solving questions can test both verbal and non-verbal abilities. Use of a questionnaire such as the WPI (Watterson Personality Inventory) can assist in measuring these areas of thinking styles, motivation, interests, and personality. Finally, ask about their ongoing learning plans to gain insight into their learning activities.

Some people may be quite systematic in reading/listening to/watching a wide range of articles, books, TED talks, etc., in their applied discipline. However, I find that quantity is not as important as what they took from these learning activities and where have they applied what they learned to generate observable positive results.

Thinking Techniques

Research indicates there are many different types of thinking techniques, among them:

  • Critical thinking
  • Scenario thinking
  • Strategic thinking
  • Systems thinking
  • Creative thinking

It is important to ask the potential leader to describe what she knows about these areas of thinking skills, where she learned about them (Engineering school, Art, design class, business school) and the context in which she found use and benefit in applying these skills. Can she speak to how they continue to enrich her practice? Inquire whether they have taken any courses/training in thinking such as the Critical Thinking course put on by ERC?

Paradoxical Thinking

The last area of important assessment for great leadership is to determine the individual’s ability to manage and leverage the paradoxes in their lives. In today’s ambiguous, rapidly changing and complex world, paradoxes abound. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it.”

Clear and precise goals help you concentrate on your target; however, concentrating single-mindedly on this goal can prevent you from discovering other, potentially more elegant, outcomes. As David P. Campbell states in the title of his career guidance book: “If you don’t where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.

However, the corollary to that statement appears in H B Gelatt’s book Creative Decision-Making Using Positive Uncertainty: “If you always know where you are going, you may never end up somewhere else.” This “somewhere else” may be where you wanted to go but did not know it yet.”  Or, in sports, concentrating too hard on where you want to hit the ball (the fairway, over the net, etc.) it is easier to miss hitting the ball. So, you benefit from focusing on the ball, while not losing your periphery vision.

 This is just one of several paradoxes in decision-making that Gelatt points out, all of which are applicable in managing the ability to move forward with positive uncertainty in a world where nothing is certain. Your leader being assessed needs to be aware of these paradoxes and have experience operating effectively while managing their existence.

Many of the teachings and texts recently have paid attention to “emotional intelligence”; however, a good leader must still be able to exercise his thinking skills in a rich and varied fashion. These days, a wealth of information is accessible to anyone who wants to appear smart; what is more important in successful leadership is how she uses these smarts. As Edward de Bono points out in Teach Your Child How to Think, having lots of horsepower in your car may be less critical for success in a race than having a good transmission or a great driver.

Thinking skills must be learned, trained, and developed because they are essential for each of the roles in your organization, particularly your leaders.

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