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9 Virtues Blog

Critical Thinking: For Leaders, It's More Than Just a Buzzword

by Rob Jenkins


I’ve been writing periodically on this blog about overused leadership buzzwords, and I’d like to address another one here. This week’s example is perhaps more common in the field of education than in the corporate world, but it does have implications for leadership that go far beyond academe. The buzzword of the week is “critical thinking.”

I guarantee that, if you get a bunch of educators in a room and toss out the question, “What can we do to improve students’ learning?” someone in that room is bound to respond with, “I know—let’s teach more critical thinking!” And yet, chances are, neither that person nor most of the other people in the room will have any idea what critical thinking is or why it’s important.

Nevertheless, critical thinking, despite having become such a buzzword that hardly anyone knows what it means anymore, actually is something real. And it is important—crucial is more like it—especially for leaders. But before I explain, let’s first talk about what the term means.

Taking the two words in reverse order, critical thinking is first and foremost about thinking—about engaging our brains, grappling with difficult concepts, using logical processes to reach well-reasoned conclusions. Put that way, it sounds fairly self-evident, the kind of thing intelligent college graduates do all the time, just as a matter of course—right?

Well. Maybe. And maybe not so much. The problem is, we live in a society that has perfected the art of not having to think. For food, we can pop something in the microwave or hit the drive-thru. Hundreds of entertainment options lie at our fingertips. When driving, we don’t even have to think about where we’re going—we just ask Siri. (And next up: self-driving cars!)

Not that any of this is bad, necessarily. I’m all in favor of labor- and time-saving devices, because ideally they allow us to direct our efforts where they’re needed most. But the upshot of this no-thinking society is that to some degree we’ve lost the desire, and perhaps even the ability, to actually engage our brains and really think about something. It doesn’t come naturally for us anymore, if indeed it ever did.

Thus, if we’re going to think critically, we first of all have to train and discipline ourselves to think.

The second part of the equation is the word “critical.” In our modern parlance, to be critical means to be negative—to criticize. But of course that’s not what the word means in this context. Think of a movie critic. Her job is not to point out how terrible every movie is, but rather to evaluate films objectively, based on her knowledge of and experience with the industry. That’s what “critical” means in this context: objective, analytical, dispassionate.

Of course, human beings aren’t naturally objective. Once again, we have to train ourselves to take a step back from our own personal tastes, preferences, and biases, which is what being objective means. We have to be analytical, as well, which in this case (as in science) basically means to break things down into their component parts, just as a movie critic considers the script, the acting, the lighting, etc. And we must be dispassionate, which means to divorce our emotions from the decision-making process.

This is perhaps the hardest part. As human beings, we’re emotional creatures. But as professionals, and especially as leaders, we can’t base all our decisions on emotions. That way lies disaster, because emotionalism is neither fair nor rational. Think again of the movie critic. Suppose, 10 years ago, she was scheduled to interview a famous actor, but he blew her off. Now, 10 years later, she’s still carrying a grudge, still trashing every movie the guy makes just because he’s in it.

Is that any way for a professional to behave? Most of us would agree that it’s not. As a professional, the critic has an obligation to evaluate an actor’s performance as objectively as possible, regardless of what she thinks about him personally.

The same applies to the rest of us. As professionals, and especially as leaders, we have to be able to divorce ourselves from our emotions when it comes to making important decisions. Which is not to say that we should never consult our emotions; of course we should. Of course there are times when we have to take emotions—like compassion, for instance—into account. We just can’t allow ourselves to be ruled by our emotions, or allow emotions to override reason, because that can lead to injustice. In doing something that seems compassionate for one person, we may well end up being unfair to a lot of other people. And the only way we can see that pitfall in advance, and thus avoid it, is to think critically about the situation beforehand.

So, yes, “critical thinking” may be a buzzword, one you haven’t heard since high school or college. And yet it’s not only a real thing, it’s something that’s absolutely vital for leaders to master.  In my next post, I’ll talk about how they (how you) can do that.

The Challenge of Achieving Work-Work Balance

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D. and Rob Jenkins


(The following is adapted from The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential, by N. Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins)

Much has been written, over the past couple of decades, about “work-life balance,” with everyone from psychologists to health care professionals to leadership gurus weighing in. Their common theme is that too many people these days spend too much time working and not enough time with family and friends or engaged in leisure activities (including exercise), and that such behavior is inherently unhealthy.

Implicit in those arguments is the suggestion that people must do a better job of organizing their lives and prioritizing their activities in order to achieve ideal balance between those things they have to do to survive (work) and those things that will make them truly happy (family, etc.).

We would disagree with none of that. Indeed, we believe the importance of work-life balance cannot be overstated. And yet, there is another type of balance, one that isn’t talked about nearly as much, that we believe is just as important for driven, high-achieving professionals—especially as they grow older and move into leadership roles. We have dubbed this second type of balance “work-work” balance.

All of us, regardless of our jobs, have tasks we hate and tasks we do not mind and tasks we really enjoy. Actually, one of the things that distinguishes a higher level, professional position from menial labor is that it is, well, not menial; it entails more of the kinds of tasks that professionals enjoy enough to have studied for many years in order to pursue. A college professor, for example, may enjoy teaching classes, being in front of and interacting with students. A lawyer may thrive on being in the courtroom. A marketing director may enjoy putting together a campaign. The salient question is, what would you do even if you were not paid for it? Would you still want to teach a class or two? Represent a worthy cause? Design a story board?

However much you may daydream of quitting your job and spending every day on the golf course or the beach, the simple truth is that, beyond merely allowing us to make a living, work is ennobling and fulfilling. In The Doctor and the Soul, Viktor Frankl observed that “the existential importance of work is most clearly seen where work is entirely eliminated from a person’s life, as in unemployment.” We fear losing our jobs because of the financial consequences, of course; but we also fear being without work because, for many of us, it helps define who we are. We would not know what to do with ourselves if suddenly we were not working, whether by choice or otherwise.

In other words, we work because we need to, but also because we like to. There are some parts of our jobs we like better than others. When we start out in a profession or are new to a specific job or in a low-ranking position, the more routine aspects of the work tend to predominate, leaving us less time to do the things we enjoy. In almost every profession, the junior people have to do the bulk of the “grunt work,” which is to say the tasks the people with more seniority do not want to do. We commonly call this “paying your dues.”

As we advance in our professions, however, one of the things most of us try to do, perhaps without even being aware, is to find more balance: to divest ourselves of some of those less pleasant tasks and spend more time working at the parts of our job we actually like. One of Rob’s good friends, a partner in a Big Four accounting firm, laughed recently when Rob joked with him about sitting around looking at spreadsheets all day. “I don’t have to do much of that anymore,” he said. “I have people to do it for me. Now I spend most of my time talking with clients, which I really enjoy.” As a young associate, he explained, he spent most of his time performing the grunt work involved in conducting an audit. Now that he has seniority, he gets to do what he likes: work with people. That is the main reason he became an auditor in the first place.

Chances are, you are already working toward this kind of balance, whether deliberately or unconsciously. But if not, perhaps it is something you should consider for your own professional satisfaction and mental health. You can begin by taking inventory of your current position and your prospects for the future within your organization. If you see no potential other than doing the same job ten years from now and that is unsatisfactory to you, perhaps you should start looking for a position that will give you more flexibility, an opportunity to move from “doing my job because I have to” toward “doing my job because I want to.”

Unfortunately, one of the paradoxes of leadership is that you may find you have unintentionally gone backwards on the work-work balance scale. In other words, as a manager, you no longer get to do some of the things you enjoy, while at the same time finding yourself having to perform more and more duties you do not enjoy. The dean attends budget meetings instead of teaching classes. The managing partner never sees the inside of a courtroom, instead spending all her time supervising the firm’s other attorneys. The marketing director never gets to roll up his sleeves and dive into a campaign because he is overseeing five or six campaigns at once.

If you get to a point in your career where you find this is the case, and as a result you no longer enjoy your work as much as you once did, then you have some important decisions to make. Basically, you have three choices. You can make peace with your new reality and try to find more satisfaction in the important role you now play, which is different from but not necessarily inferior to the role you used to play. Or you can figure out how to bring more balance to your current position by doing more of the things you like. (Who says the managing partner cannot second-chair a case occasionally?) Or you can give up your leadership role (assuming your organization allows for that) and go back to doing what you love. That last choice probably will have financial consequences, but depending on your frame of mind, that may be a small sacrifice.

The important principle to remember is the work-work balance you are striving for is the work-work balance that best suits you. It will be different for everybody, because it is based on your own distinctive preferences and idea of what constitutes balance. As you seek your point of balance, do not allow yourself to be overly influenced by popular conceptions of power or success or by what other people think you ought to do. Only you can decide what works for you.

Why is Humility the Foundational Virtue?

by Rob Jenkins


In The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, my co-author Karl Haden and I place Humility first among the virtues. Why? Because we believe that it is, in many ways, the foundational virtue, especially for leaders. Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls humility “the mother of all virtues,” and we believe that is an apt description.

When we say humility is the “foundational virtue,” we mean that it is the one virtue from which all the others arise and the one that makes all of them possible. An individual may possess, or at least appear to possess, any of the other virtues, but if that individual lacks humility, we do not in the end regard him or her as a virtuous person.

This is especially true for leaders. As Ken Blanchard has made abundantly clear in The Servant Leader, humility is the sine qua non of leadership, in that it prompts us to set aside our own selfish agendas and focus on serving those we lead.

Even so, this is a very difficult concept for many leaders to grasp, or at least buy into. Many people in leadership positions got there by the force of their personality and/or intellect. They’re used to telling people what to do and being obeyed. Thus they tend to have outsized egos, which on the surface seems to be the opposite of humility.

Yet having a healthy sense of self does not mean that someone cannot be humble. Indeed, in some ways it is a necessary prerequisite for true humility, as opposed to low self-esteem. Only those inclined to think well of themselves, and with reason to do so, can truly exhibit meaningful humility. Being humble means suppressing ego, setting aside one’s sense of self in favor of a sensitivity to others. You can’t suppress something you don’t have to begin with.

Nor does seeking humility mean that one cannot project strength when strength is called for. History provides many examples of great leaders who were both humble and strong: Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Dr. King.

For those leaders who are struggling with this idea of humility, or who frankly don’t see the need for it, we would like to offer the following observation, perhaps as a form of motivation: unless you first seek humility, you cannot possibly acquire the other leadership virtues.

Without Humility, Honesty becomes little more than a bludgeon with which to establish one’s moral superiority.

Courage becomes mere foolhardiness—or worse, false bravado.

Perseverance becomes pure stubbornness, pigheadedness, often in pursuit of an unjust (or at least less than worthwhile) cause.

Hope becomes wide-eyed optimism, edging toward fantasy and certain to be disappointed.

Charity becomes mere self-love, or else a tool for manipulating others.

Balance becomes a futile attempt to reconcile warped priorities.

Wisdom becomes conceit, contempt for those (supposedly) less wise, and ultimately self-deception. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.)

And Justice becomes the servant of the powerful—or, as Thrasymachus puts it in Plato’s Republic, “nothing else than the interests of the stronger.”

Remember, if you want to be a better leader, you must start by becoming a better person. The road to self-improvement, we believe, lies through embracing, practicing, and internalizing the 9 Virtues. And the first, indispensable step on that road is to begin seeking humility.

(For some suggestions on how to do that—and to read an excerpt from the book—see this earlier post.)