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Thinking Skills: The Foundation of Intelligent Leadership Published: Monday, March 8, 2010 1:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

The characteristics of effective leadership have been widely described in popular literature, from Bennis' guiding vision to Bennett's virtues. Yet the question remains: What are the most important qualities a company should consider when selecting a person to lead a team, division, and corporation? Recently, personality and related concepts, such as emotional intelligence, have come to the forefront of this discussion. Those elements play an important role in driving requirements for success in business today, such as innovation or the ability to deal with ambiguity. However, those are only part of the picture. Research demonstrates that Cognitive ability is a determining and potent predictor of occupational attainment and job performance (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004).

A business leader who thinks clearly, sorts through the clutter, and anticipates well is using his or her critical thinking skills. Companies that accurately assess these components are more likely to select leaders who will excel in the real-world business arena. Business leaders can be bright and well educated, but still not possess superior critical thinking skills. Research on this field has revealed the following six (6) fundamental thinking skills: 

Interpretation - comprehending the meaning and significance of a wide variety of situations, data or events. It is the ability to categorize, determine significance, and clarify meaning. In practice, it is the person who recognizes a problem or accurately reads someone's nonverbal cues to distill meaning.

Analysis - identifying the relationships from information or opinion. It is the ability to effectively examine ideas and arguments. In practice, it is the executive who differentiates ideas that define a successful strategic plan from those that don't.

Evaluation - assessing the credibility of statements and the logical strength of the inferential relationships among statements. It is recognizing credibility or judging if an argument's conclusions follow from its premise; it is recognizing relevance. In practice, it is the leader who effectively weighs the alternatives that lead to differential profitability.

Inference - identifying information needed to draw reasonable conclusions. It is gathering evidence, weighing alternatives, and drawing conclusions. In practice, it is the manager who effectively determines which of several potential conclusions is most strongly supported by the evidence at hand.

Explanation - stating one's position or justifying a position based on evidence, criteria, or contextual considerations. It is cogent arguments and the use of insightful criteria to support a judgment.  In practice, it is the employee who develops a proposal backed by solid data and logic.

Self-regulation - monitoring one's cognitive activities by questioning, validating, or correcting one's reasoning. It is self-examination and self-correction. In practice, it is the professional who dissects personal biases and opinions from important information prior to making a decision.

Can Thinking Skills be developed? A frequent question is whether we view thinking skills as "developable." In a 2003 report from the University of Tennessee, R.L. Williams concluded that thinking skills can be developed. The pivotal question is, when is it more advantageous to select versus develop quality thinkers? The answer depends on the company's timeline. Thinking skills are the basic building blocks for higher-level competencies, such as strategic thinking. 

Being able to proficiently exercise higher-level competencies requires concerted effort and time. When a company needs to quickly strengthen quality thinking within a position or division, selection yields a higher probability of success. However, when a company sets a long-term objective to enhance thinking skills (say over a three-year period), there is sufficient time to build skills. Profound Thinking is the hardest and most difficult task a person can embrace. Because competencies like strategic planning are highly sought after and in short supply, a longer-term organic strategy is often necessary.

Strong thinking skills are closely related to the ability to distinguish primary goals from less relevant concerns, anticipate probable outcomes, and recognize peoples' underlying agendas. Thinking skills as a differentiator should play a prominent role in both the selection and the development of supervisors, managers, executives, and individual contributors. Leaders who consistently make wise decisions or see opportunities that others miss are the leaders that every company needs. Thinking skills and associated dispositional qualities can be evaluated quickly and cost-effectively-and the small investment of time and money yields high dividends. The difference between profound thinkers and their counterparts is often a multi-million dollar difference.

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