When assessing potential, our clients often ask us “How quickly can the individual grow into the role?”, or “Can this competency be easily developed?”, and my response usually highlights that it depends on how committed the leader is to changing current behaviours and developing new ones. While I still wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I need to qualify it to make it fully accurate. Critical thinking and good judgment skills, which can both be very difficult to develop, form the foundation upon which one builds their leadership impact.
In a previous blog, titled Leadership – The Importance of Critical Thinking, I wrote about how crucial critical thinking is to sustaining success in one’s current role. In this blog I want to highlight the importance of critical thinking skills when considering a leader’s potential for development.
When working with clients, we get a true picture of what they deem crucial for emerging leaders to progress and succeed within their organization. Some clients believe that a leader who shows good people skills has great potential, and will be able to easily develop everything else they may need for their next role. Other clients will swear by the leader’s ability to drive results and get things done no matter what, hoping they will eventually round it up with a few people skills. Many clients also believe that past good performance is a strong predictor of future performance. In similar roles, I would absolutely agree; in broader, more senior roles, the reality may be different. Recent research by Management Research Group (MRG) on the most effective leadership practices for Senior Executives in North America found, by a large margin, that the number one factor correlated to leadership effectiveness in Senior Executives was the ability to “analyze the future impact of their decisions, and understand the impact of these decisions throughout the organization.”
When a Senior Executive demonstrates the ability that MRG identified as being most important, it is first and foremost rooted in their critical thinking skills. If indeed one has the ability to “think rationally and engage in reflective independent thinking; integrate new information and reach a proper conclusion, and understand the logical connections between concepts”, they have the foundation to develop the ability to think strategically and consider the future impact of their decisions.
In today’s fast-changing and highly competitive business environment, critical and strategic thinking has become paramount to success, and the risks associated with poor decision-making are greater than ever. With fewer established parameters to lean on, and less guiding principles to operate within, leaders must rely on their ability to identify what is critical, what is only peripheral, and which strategy will be the most relevant for their organization’s future success. When a leader lacks the ability to think critically, there is a strong probability they will overlook key information, draw the wrong conclusion from the facts presented, and miss the long-term and broader implications of their actions and decisions, which could potentially have disastrous consequences for the business.
On the other hand, a leader with well-developed critical thinking skills can understand the more discrete, logical, and factual connections between ideas, identify the relevance and importance of arguments, detect nuanced inconsistencies or mistakes in reasoning, and consequently, arrive at the right conclusion. With these skills, a leader is well equipped to focus on the most critical elements, understand the impact of their decisions throughout the organization and implement the most relevant strategy to ensure outstanding results and sustainable success, as they keep on progressing into more senior roles.
So when clients ask me now, especially in a development context, “Do you think this leader has the potential to develop and move into a senior role?”, I look long and hard at their critical thinking abilities, whether they could potentially turn these into effective strategic thinking and decision-making, as these will shape their success throughout their career.