Most of the coaching requests that I receive revolve around emotional intelligence: clients are described as lacking self-awareness, or are unable to control their impulses, or don’t empathize with others. But what if this diagnosis is only half correct: What if many leadership deficiencies are rooted in shortcomings of critical thinking?

According to the Foundation of Critical Thinking there are three components:

  • Curiosity: Being genuinely interested in learning and uncovering how things work or fit together
  • Skepticism: Probing to understand a problem at a deeper level and not overly trusting anecdotal evidence about proposed solutions
  • Humility: Questioning one’s own judgments and avoiding the tendency to believe that you are right

In the absence of curiosity, executives fail to distinguish symptoms from root causes. In the absence of skepticism, executives are influenced by subjective and often self-serving opinions of people who surround them. In the absence of humility, executives display arrogance toward opinions that are not their own.

Exhibit A: Jenny is a senior HR executive who asked me to provide leadership coaching to the Operations VP of her company because “the CEO asked her to find a coach.” When I met the Operations VP she seemed puzzled that she needed a coach. Her 360 feedback evaluations gave evidence that she was a highly effective leader. She was open to coaching but didn’t understand the reason for the ‘invitation.’

Exhibit B: Richard is a highly respected physician and researcher, newly promoted to Department Chair at a prestigious academic medical center. He inherited a department with heightened tension between residents and faculty. Results of employee engagement surveys included disgruntlement, potential burnout, etc.

The faculty blamed the ‘millennial residents,’ whom they judged as lazy and not up to the rigorous standards they were required to meet. Richard took the side of the faculty and started giving pep talks to the residents. He acknowledged their feelings and exhorted them to work harder. This strategy backfired and Richard asked for my support.

In both cases, the problems had less to do with emotional intelligence and more to do with critical thinking, or its absence. Jenny was insufficiently curious, and Richard was overly confident in his own (and his faculty’s) conclusions.

Is there a Solution?

I wish I could wave a magic wand to help my clients improve their critical thinking capabilities, but I cannot. So far, the most I have been able to do is point out the limitations of how they are approaching a problem, and offer an alternative pathway. And I’m happy to say that sometimes this actually works.

For instance, I encouraged Jenny, the HR executive, to dig in to what was happening in her Company’s supply chain that was affecting the Operations VP’s credibility with the CEO. She was surprised to learn that the root cause of the problem was not the leadership behavior of the Operations VP. Rather, it was the inability of a few essential suppliers to provide material in a consistent way.

The Operations VP knew this already, but hadn’t discussed the problem with the CEO. When Jenny presented her insights to both the CEO and the Operations VP, they took a different pathway than hire me as a coach (oh well). One benefit of Jenny’s improved critical thinking was that the CEO and Operations VP realized that they needed to communicate more frequently, which they began to do.

And in Exhibit B I encouraged Richard to think more skeptically about his faculty’s judgments regarding the residents. I said his unwillingness to see the problem from other perspectives was a mistake, and that he needed to understand the multiple causes of the tension.

Richard stopped giving pep talks, and instead sat down with small groups of residents to discover what was leading to the low morale. They identified a small set of issues (doing too much clerical work, not having sufficient workspace, being pulled in multiple directions, etc.) that most contributed to the situation, which he then worked to correct. His skepticism grew and he wondered why the faculty hadn’t taken care of these significant issues without his intervention. He concluded this to be a more significant problem, and we are working to correct it.

We all fall into the trap of lazy thinking from time to time. And of course, critical thinking can be taken to extremes; being overly skeptical can be considered distrustful, and being overly curious can lead to lack of focused execution.

But before we trust our own instincts too readily, or accept others’ ideas without question, we should first consider whether our thinking has been rigorous enough to lead to the best way forward. We may be surprised by the wisdom we find from thinking differently.