When presidents play God, one is reminded of Martin Luther King’s words: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
Being a good leader in any context is tough – having a worthy vision, communicating with clarity, engaging authentically, empathising with compassion, providing hope, etc. One of the toughest aspects of leadership, however, is the need and ability to make well-informed decisions – decisions that are unselfish in character, based on rigorous analysis and intellectually thorough in critical thinking processes. Few leaders have the requisite skills – those that don’t should be relying on advisors that do.
Critical thinking can trace its intellectual roots to the practice and vision of Socrates who noted that confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth, but largely empty, rhetoric. The Center and Foundation for Critical Thinking’s, A Brief History, states: “Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in “authority” to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief”.
The Center goes on to define the critical thinking concept: “Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which — however appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may be — lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.”
To get to a place of mature thinking, you must ask questions of yourself and everyone else. Brian D Egan (The Role of Critical Thinking in Problem Analysis) notes: “Critical thinking is drilling down to clarify meaning, eliminate inaccuracies, improve comprehension and strive for intellectually honest results”. Critical thinking should not be thought of as an effort to refute any particular choice or decision, but rather as a way to balance evidence, reason and options.
Of real importance to those who lead in a public role, Egan notes: “Sophistry is weak-sense critical thinking. It is synonymous with the art of politics. One does not expect a politician to point out the weaknesses in their own campaign strategies or the strength of their opponents’. Ethical critical thinkers would. Weak-sense critical thinkers are focused on winning arguments rather than on being fair-minded. They use emotional appeals and intellectual trickery in ways that appeal to people’s prejudices and fears.
Ethical critical thinkers strive to be fair-minded. They make the effort to incorporate the viewpoint of others in their decision-making processes. They recognize high-quality reasoning in others and are willing to change their views when confronted with better reasoning than their own”.
Stephen R Covey’s “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” rings true here. Leaders need to take the time to find out what they do not know before reaching conclusions. They will make more effective decisions as a result.