If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are set up for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes ambling along. –Carl Sagan

As a reminder, Gentle Reader, in PART II, I offered us two questions; this morning we will continue with our exploration.  Here are the two questions: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

Emotive & Rational.  ‘Thinking critically’ is too often viewed/experienced as a rational activity; the belief is that emotions hinder or cloud thinking critically.  Consider, however, Gentle Reader, that we are primarily emotive beings.  Consider: How many times have you responded emotionally or made a choice or took an action that was rooted in ‘emotion-first’ and only afterwards did you construct a ‘rationale’ for your feeling or choice or action?

Consider that asking critical questions about our previously held values, ideas, behaviors, principles and assumptions is, at minimum, anxiety-producing and a maximum is extremely emotionally disturbing.  Yet if we are going to ‘change’ or ‘transform’ emerging, framing, asking and responding to these types of questions is crucial.

When I ask critical questions I might become fear-full of the consequences that might emerge.  The range of consequences (intended and unintended) is broad; consider this short list: a viable alternative might emerge, resistance might surface, resentment might flower, confusion might…well, confusion might confuse.  We might also, however, experience, joy, release (from being stuck), relief, or even exhilaration as we break through to new ways of looking at our worlds (think: personal, relational, work, religious, philosophic and/or political).

More than 45 years ago, Lowell, my mentor at the time, was sitting with me and I was telling him how fear-full I was.  I was contemplating a life-changing move, a move I knew I needed to make and I could not ‘find’ the courage amidst the fear.  Lowell invited me to close my eyes and image ‘my’ fear.  Once I had done this he invited me to approach ‘my’ fear and embrace it.  Then Lowell invited me to look over ‘my’ fear’s shoulder and I would see courage, patiently waiting to be called forth.  Once I had embraced my fear and beheld my courage Lowell then invited me into a deep searching conversation.  The emotive preceded the rational.

During these many years since when I have had the privilege of serving the police, the military, fire-fighters and other first-responders this story always resonated with them for in times of ‘need’ they had to embrace their fear and find and call forth the courage that resided behind the fear.  They, too, said that acknowledging and in a sense ‘embracing’ their fear(s) allowed them to perceive the courage that they then called forth.  As one fire-fighter remarked: I entered the burning building full of fear, trembling and courage; we all went in together.  I still love that image.

As we abandon our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes, ‘sureties,’ beliefs that are hindering or depleting our development we do experience a sense of liberation.  As we wake up and become aware that we have the power (power = one’s ability to act rooted in moral integrity) to change, we are emotionally charged in a positive way (mostly, it seems).

Consider that thinking critically and denying or ignoring or dismissing emotions puts the thinker in harm’s way.

So now, Gentle Reader, you might ask: What are some of the components of thinking critically? 

An expert is someone who has stopped thinking critically because he knows. –Frank Lloyd Wright



Simply disabling specific critical thinking skills is all that is necessary for the god virus to take control of a person. –Darrel Ray

 As a reminder, Gentle Reader, in PART II, I offered us two questions; this morning we will continue with our exploration.  Here are the two questions: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

 Context-Focused.  Context is crucial.  Because ‘contexts’ vary, the indicators that reveal whether or not a person is thinking critically varies; minimally or enormously.  For some, the process appears to be almost exclusively rooted in an internal process (more often than not I process internally).  I reveal my internal process via my writing or via deep searching-conversations.  For others critical thinking will manifest itself externally.  For example, my daughter, Rebecca, processes externally via a combination of actions and verbal engagement.  The ‘context’ helps to frame – or powerfully frames – the critical thinking process. The ‘tension’ occurs when the ‘internal processor’ has to work with the ‘external processor.’  I liken it to a ‘dance’ where at times one ‘takes the lead’ and at other times the other ‘takes the lead,’  A simple, not simplistic metaphor.

Triggering Events.  Positive and Negative Events can be the ‘triggers.’  An event, from ‘important’ to ‘traumatic’ often opens a pathway to critical thinking.  The person begins to question, for example, his/her previously trusted assumptions about how the world works.  The person might well begin to care-fully scrutinize his/her previously unquestioned ways of thinking and living.  This awareness does not bring comfort or solace; one indicator that a person is thinking critically is that he/she is disturbed by what is revealed.  In June, my son-in-law, Gregg had a massive heart attack.  As he was recovering we had a few conversations about the opportunities a ‘second bite of the apple’ was presenting him.  The journey – inward and external – has been challenging.  And Gregg continues to heal in a number of ways.

The triggering event might also be a ‘peak experience event’ – think: falling in love, graduating, achieving a long sought goal.  We begin to wonder if our old assumptions about our roles, personalities, and abilities were completely accurate.  I remember my son Nathan calling me after he had been accepted in a graduate degree program (this graduate school took only one graduate student a year in Nathan’s discipline; he had applied four years in a row).  I did my undergraduate work at this university.  Nathan wanted to know if I had done anything to help him get accepted.  I assured him that I had not done a thing.  There was a pause and Nathan began to cry.  After a short time he said, ‘Dad, do you mean that I did this on my own?’  I replied, ‘Absolutely son, YOU did it.’  The following three years were truly life-changing for him.  His often stated, ‘I don’ know if I can do this’ became, ‘This is a challenge AND I can do this.’  He spent three years exploring and developing his critical thinking skills and capacities.

Emotive & Rational. [To be continued…]

 The most fundamental attack on freedom is the attack on critical thinking skills. –Travis Nichols


“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

There are complementary questions, consider these: How can I/We recognize when critical thinking is occurring? I/We already possess the skill of thinking; what, then, are the major capacities we might develop or develop more fully that will help me/you/us become more astute critical thinkers?  What actually takes place when one thinks critically? 

Alas, Gentle Reader, the time and space required to address these crucial questions  (‘crucial’ in my mind, at least) limits us.  Given this limitation, I invite us to consider five characteristics that together indicate that critical thinking might well be occurring.

Positive Activity. Critical thinking is a positive activity.  It is also a productive activity.  It might not be seen/experienced by some as an efficient activity.  At times, a critical thinker might well be called a ‘cynic’ (one way of dismissing the person); critical thinkers are, however, skeptics (more on this later).  Consider that when a person thinks critically then he/she becomes aware of and seeks to understand a diversity of values, behaviors, psychological/social structures, motivations, and assumptions held (first by self and then by the other).

 The critical thinker seeks first to understand and thus to gain an awareness that others have the same sense of, say, ‘certainty’ about the world that we have or we might learn that the other has a different sense of certainty about the world.  The critical thinker seeks to understand the other’s ‘certainty’ – this does not mean that the critical thinker has to agree with the other’s ‘certainty.’  [NOTE: ‘Certainty’ includes, but is not limited to: values, beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes, assumptions, guiding life principles, etc.]

Process not Outcome. Perhaps most importantly, critical thinking entails engaging in and embracing a process of continual questioning.  There are many foci for the questioning.  Consider that the most important questioning-focus is to question my/your/our assumptions, especially my/your/our deep tacit assumptions.  The critical thinker is skeptical, for example, of claims to universal truth or total certainty.  ‘Doubt’ not ‘Surety’ enables one to engage a critical thinking process.  By its very nature, thinking critically never has an end point.  This idea drives some folks over the edge.  I remember sitting with a CEO many years ago.  I was attempting to be his thought-partner.  I kept inviting him to ‘consider’ and ‘think critically’ about the challenge he was facing.  After some minutes he looked at me, his face was getting redder and redder and the veins on his neck began to show.  Finally, he blurted out: ‘I don’t want to think about it; just tell me what to do!’

Context-Focused. [To be continued…]

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates

Recently a number of experiences have come together and have invited me to once again put finger to key and offer you, Gentle Reader, some considerations with a focus on Thinking Critically.  To provide you with a bit of context here are a few of the experiences: The lack of critical thinking that ran amok during the recent confirmation hearings for our next Supreme Court judge; the lack of critical thinking that is blatantly lacking from almost all of the attack ads now running amok on television; the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by our President during his rallies and during his off-the-cuff responses to crucial questions.

I am, however, not without hope.  Last week I had the privilege to spend three hours with 19 undergraduate students; I was a guest in their case studies and ethics class.  The students were juniors and seniors and the course is a required course for their major (actually, at least13 of them have double-majors).  With minimum guidance these students embraced the challenge of thinking critically.

I presented them with an ethics dilemma; I was a thought-partner to the person who held the dilemma (in this case it was both a right-right and a harm-harm dilemma; talk about upping the dilemma ante).  The students embraced and engaged the dilemma; helped each other; challenged each other; were open to listening to understand one another.  Their questions to me were thought-provoking as were the questions they offered one another.  I left the room hope-full.

As I have noted in previous postings, as a nation/culture/society our need to develop critical thinkers is, today more than ever before, crucial and imperative.  For me, the development of critical thinkers is a national/cultural/societal priority.  This development is crucial and imperative for both civic and economic reasons.

Civically, a critically informed society/populace is required for democracy to function effectively, efficiently and faithfully (think: being faithful to our constitution).  Economically, it is crucial that all of us learn to think critically so that we can both counter the greed that continues to run amok amongst us and to engage a global community that is both collaborating and competing with us economically.

Sadly, it seems to me, and to others, that there continues to be a lack of correspondence between what is required of an educated citizenry and what is ‘taught’ in our schools – beginning with our elementary schools.  Recorded history taught us – continues to teach us – that although individuals can develop critical thinking skills and capacities (and use them effectively), as a collective the ‘emotional mob/tribe’ continues to win out.  The insightful Reinhold Niebuhr captured this in his 1934 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.   A must-read for We the People (my view, at least).

Consider that as adults we are on the verge of thinking critically whenever we question why we, or others, behave in certain ways.  Parents are on the verge of thinking crucially when they begin to question why they parent as they do (critical thinking can help us parents discern, for example, why we might choose an encouragement model of parenting or why we might choose a discouragement model of parenting,  As I observe parents today the discouragement model is alive and well).

A populace that asks ‘awkward’ questions of their elected officials and those seeking our ‘vote’ is on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace that calls for our elected officials to account for their choices and actions and who challenge existing policies and political structures (think: gerrymandering) are on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace who is skeptical of all media depictions is on the verge of thinking critically (a democracy requires a major tap root of healthy skepticism if it is going to survive and thrive).

So, Gentle Reader: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. –R. Buckminster Fuller

As a reminder: The type of practice that is important to the learning-leader consists in experimenting with new action strategies coupled with new values, coupled with a simultaneous reflection upon the action and its consequences (the intended and, perhaps more importantly, the unintended consequences).

The ‘new’ is more effectively learned by learning-leaders who are grappling with current difficult ‘challenges’ (think: problems, polarities, paradoxes & dilemmas – both right-right and harm-harm dilemmas), especially those that have been avoided or covered up.

A most powerful context for learning is one in which individuals identify challenges (again, think: problems, polarities, paradoxes and dilemmas) that they believe are central in their lives, which they also predict are unsolvable-unresolvable and/or undiscussable.

NOTE: There are many more Paradoxes, Polarities, and Dilemmas (Right-Right and Harm-Harm) than Problems to be solved.  Consider, then, that the ‘umbrella’ concept is ‘Challenge’ and that each Challenge will be composed of one or more of these (problems, paradoxes, polarities & dilemmas).

These ‘Challenges’ often include one or more of the following: freedom of choice, truth, the nature of commitment, high achievement-competition, effectiveness-faithfulness, cooperation, collaboration, conflict (e.g. values and needs conflicts), and authority-influence.  There is also a triumvirate that must be attended to: trust-safety-commitment (commitment vs loyalty).

Too often the learning-leader demonstrates resistance to this type of leaning.  Consider, then, that resistance to this type of reflective-learning-in-action is rooted in embarrassment, threat, fear, and shame.  These are the tap roots that feed and nurture resistance and reluctance to engage (and hence to learn).

Not only Learning-Leaders, but all human beings need to become competent in TAKING ACTION and SIMULTANEOUSLY REFLECTING ON THE ACTION taken in order to learn from it.  Experience plus Reflection is the key to learning.

In order to Learn, Leaders must develop, practice and integrate at least three types of theories.  Theories are vehicles for ‘explanation,’ ‘prediction,’ or ‘control.’

An Explanatory Theory explains events by setting forth propositions from which these events may be inferred.

A Predictive Theory sets forth propositions from which inferences about future events may be made.

A Theory of Control describes the conditions under which events of a certain kind may be made to occur.

Learning is a never-ending process and challenge.  The learning that the leader is called to embrace must be intentional and purpose-full.  Gandhi captures the importance of this in five words:

My life is my message.

Everything is hard before it is easy. –Goethe

The learning-leader is willing to persevere in practicing new behaviors, or embracing new attitudes, or letting go of certain assumptions and replacing them, with the goal of being more response-able, more effective, and perhaps more faithful [For example, think: ‘Being Faithful to always acting from a tap root of moral integrity’ ].

It is also important for the leader to understand that the kind of practice that is essential to learning is NOT routine repetition but is experimentation-focused.  Being experimentation-focused requires some competence in the use of abstractions (think, for example, ‘metaphors’); the leader-learner must develop, or develop more fully, his/her competence when it comes to embracing abstractions.

This, as we know, is more challenging for the leader who is, by his/her nature, a ‘concrete’ thinker.  For example, the ‘operationalizer’ is more likely to be rooted in ‘concrete thinking’ and the ‘conceptualizer’ is more likely to be rooted in ‘abstract thinking.’  It is easier for the conceptualizer to embrace the operationalizer than it is for the operationalizer to embrace – if not value – the conceptualizer.

NOTE: It is crucial that the leader learns that practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent!  Hence, the leader must choose wisely when it comes to choosing the ‘what’ to practice.

The learning-leader also seeks to embrace Being Vulnerable without feeling weak.  Being Vulnerable involves taking risks, being transparent, being fully human and it also means that the leader will carry the wound with grace [‘Vulnerable’ comes from the Latin vulnus, which means, to carry the wound with grace].  The leader will be ‘wounded’ – intentionally and unintentionally; some of these wounds will be self-inflicted.  Thus, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing are capacities that the leader must also develop or develop more fully.

It is also crucial to note that learning-leaders change values at the level of ‘theory-in-use’ (Think: ‘Values’ that are ‘negotiable’] and are, at the same time, committed to holding onto their ‘core-values’ [‘core values’ are the ones they will, to the best of their ability, never compromise; these ‘core values’ are non-negotiable].

A ‘conflict of values’ emerges when ‘core values’ conflict or when a person is asked to compromise one or more of his/her ‘core values.’  Each of us has integrated two or three ‘core values’ and so it is crucial for the learning-leader to emerge and name them and for the learning-leader to encourage all, especially his/her direct reports to emerge and name them.  The emergence and naming will not diminish a conflict of values; this emergence and naming might help folks engage the conflict more ‘creatively’ however.

[AN ASIDE: In addition to a conflict of ‘core values’ the other powerful conflict that occurs involves a conflict of ‘core needs’.  Again, we have needs that we can compromise and we have ‘core needs’ that to the best of our ability we will never compromise].

Learning is not a one-time event or a periodic luxury.  Great leaders recognize that the ability to constantly learn and improve is vital. –Amy Edmondson



Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. –John F. Kennedy

Good morning Gentle Reader.  These past four years I have been helping a new leader develop his skills and capacities so he can develop more fully into the leader that he believes he is called to become.  As he reflected to me last week, “I continue to learn so much; much more than I thought I would learn or needed to learn.”

His comment stimulated my own thinking about ‘Leaders & Learning.’  Here is some of the considerations that, thus far, have emerged into my consciousness.

Consider that Leaders who are committed to learn possess two crucial characteristics:

  • They are able to listen to feedback (internal and external) about the errors they make as they strive to learn (learn via a number of experiences);
  • Once they have received valid and constructive feedback, they tend to ‘hang in’ in order to learn.

NOTE: ‘Error’ = the gap between their ‘theories of use’ and their ‘espoused theories.’  As imperfect human beings this ‘gap’ always exists.  In order to discern the gaps one must understand his or her ‘espoused theories’ and one must be aware of his or her ‘theories of use.’

For Example: A leader ‘espouses’ that it is crucial that he/she listen first, in order to understand.  As James Autry used to tell his direct reports: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.!’  This same leader, however, has integrated a ‘theory of use’ that he/she relies upon when frustrated or stressed.  This ‘theory of use’ does not rely upon listening, first in order to understand; this theory relies upon reactive action first – the ‘shoot first and aim later’ reaction.

On the other hand, when a leader is committed to learning then he/she will seek to embrace something like the following:  When it happens that a new action he/she tries out seems wrong/ineffective and the result is the leader feels stuck then the leader realizes that recognizing and embracing the stuck-ness is necessary for learning to occur.

NOTE: The leader realizes that the old guideline, ‘The leader must walk-the-talk’ is a trap.  The reality is that the leader who is learning will, more often than not, ‘Stumble the Mumble!’  The leader will, indeed, fall down many times and many times will not know the ‘right words’.  Consistency is the goal; not perfection.

Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn. –Benjamin Franklin