In more than 35 years of consulting, I have found that, at the upper echelons of large organizations, natural intelligence differentiates the successful leader from the “also ran.” While you’ll hear debates about the roles of emotional intelligence, vision and the ability to motivate others, brainpower trumps all. Three main components define what I call Executive Intelligence: Critical thinking, learning ability and quantitative skills. Of these, critical thinking—that “lick of sense” you hear so much about—is the most important and the least understood.
Dispassionate scrutiny, strategic focus and analytical reasoning form the foundation of critical thinking. These abilities equip a person to anticipate future consequences, get to the core of complicated issues and zero in on the essential few while putting aside the trivial many.
People who have the ability to think logically but behave emotionally show no more promise than those who don’t have the ability to start with. Conversely, logical thinking and the ability to function in the arena of the abstract stand at the core of advanced critical thinking. In addition to excelling at troubleshooting themselves, people who possess these skills can serve as strong sounding boards to others who struggle with complex or unfamiliar problems. Further, they have a kind of internal crystal ball—a knack for seeing into the future to anticipate consequences and plan for contingencies.
You can often evaluate individuals’ critical thinking based on their pattern of decision making. Ask yourself, “Can this person….”
- Separate strategy from tactics, the “what” from the “how”?
- Keep a global perspective?
- Overcome obstacles?
- Create order during chaos?
- See patterns and trends?
- Think on his/her feet?
- Prioritize seemingly conflicting goals?
- Get to the core of the issue and immediately begin to formulate possible solutions?
- Paint credible pictures of possibilities and likelihoods?
- Respond favorably to unexpected and unpleasant changes?
- Serve as a source of advice and wisdom?
Most people can learn to follow a protocol or set of procedures. Give them a checklist, and they can execute the plan. They know how to run fast, but sometimes they don’t know which race to get in or which direction to dash.
Often these individuals play the role of valuable employees, maybe even top performers. But like baseball players who once hit home runs in the minor leagues, they can’t always hit when they get to the majors. Businesses demand more advanced Executive Intelligence at each rung on the corporate ladder. Critical thinking is the voice and the willingness to put this ability into action, the echo. The two must work in tandem to make a leader successful.