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Navigating the Leadership Minefield with Critical Thinking


We have a conundrum. We live in a world that wants free expression in the midst of competing dogmas. Being a “good leader” in this landscape is comparable to navigating a minefield in muddied waters. Is it best then to just keep one’s mouth shut and stay out of the fray, or to run head first into it and hope the mines detonate harmlessly in one’s wake? Before wading into muddied waters, we might call to mind Lao Tzu’s question: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” Whether we like it or not, we all must enter the minefield, and we improve our chances of emerging on the other side by slowing down and thinking critically.   

I’ve found the work of Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), Hans Rosling (Factfulness), and Robert Sapolsky (Behave) quite helpful. Drawing from their findings, what follows is a list of threats that prevent a person from seeing things as they are—and accompanying checks to make sensible decisions. To go all in on the muddy-water-minefield analogy, consider the threats to be all that churned up mud and the checks…the still water that, with patience, reveals a clearer path forward. 

  • Threat: We can be lazy when we think. Our brain will automate thoughts if it sees an easy solution. In other words, we sometimes “go with our gut,” rather than rational thought. Check: Practice deliberate thinking. Double check your conclusions, seek feedback from others, and invest time and energy into decisions. 

  • Threat: Our brains engage autopilot with certain cues (e.g., you receive an email from your favorite clothing brand announcing a sale, and then you get lost online browsing items that you had no intention of buying moments before). Check: Give yourself time to process information. Beware triggered responses, and go through the steps of composing yourself, analyzing real data, and exercising good judgment based on all the facts. 

  • Threat: Our brains form quick judgments based on prior experiences, leading to the “halo effect” (a positive feeling about a person leads you to see everything they do in a positive light) and “confirmation bias” (a tendency to agree with and blindly accept information that supports your personal beliefs). Check: Since this can happen unconsciously, it is important to lay out the data gathered on people and concepts before sizing them up. To avoid erroneous conclusions, we must be critical thinkers. Honor the full body of work. Remember that everyone thinks they are right—and that everyone is equally capable of being wrong. 

  • Threat: Our brains have dramatic filters. In particular, we focus on negative events. Check: To overcome the “negativity bias,” try to recognize at least one positive idea for every negative one you have about someone or something. Weigh those against one another rather than leaving positive ideas off the scale altogether. A catastrophic negative may ultimately weigh more than a string of positives. Nonetheless, this practice helps one escape the negativity tunnel and see that good things happen—all of the time. 

  • Threat: When we experience “cognitive ease,” we are more likely to make quick, thoughtless decisions. Check: Create “cognitive strain.” Chronic stress and exceeding optimal stress levels will lead to burnout. However, the decision-making process should not be nonchalant or heedless. Jumping on the first solution that pops in your head may look decisive. In reality, that is recklessness, not good sense—and more appropriate behavior for a middle schooler, give or take. Thoughts come and go without any thought, literally. Creating and embracing tension leads to fewer mistakes in judgment. 

  • Threat: We are more afraid of losing than we are motivated by winning. Check: The ego is a powerful spur, and people make decisions based on the fear of personal loss, even when significant gains are plausible. Normalize losing. It will happen. The wise leader studies the evidence, understands the odds, accepts the outcome, and moves forward. 

  • Threat: We create mental images to explain ideas and concepts, and we refer to these images when making decisions. We also favor these images while overlooking others. Check: Instead of imagining how things should be, analyze quality data points and focus on how they are. People cannot predict the future, and the images they create are based on their own limited perspective. Embracing the perspectives of others improves one’s ability to discover answers that would have remained hidden in plain sight. 

  • Threat: Biases and cultural context impact perception and decision-making. Check: Leaders should attend to differences in ability, ethnicity, family status, national origin/geography, race, religion, sexual orientation, and social group. When leaders develop an awareness of their own cultural lens—and the lenses of others—they can avoid favoring people who look and act like they do (i.e., non-critical thinking). Never underestimate the power of us/them thinking, the psychology of preferring the in-group over the out-group. Expand your “us.” 

With these checks in hand, I’d like to finish with a leadership goal, one that is focused on helping people achieve their full potential, which in turn produces more capable hands to make use of the aforementioned checks. The goal comes from Douglas Murray. His guideline is straightforward and reasonable: “Nobody with a competency to perform a task should ever be held back from achieving what they can achieve because of some characteristic over which they have no say” (2019). Yes, biases and cultural context impact perception and decision-making, and it’s thoughtful to check that threat. However it’s also important that we don’t overcorrect the threat while falling for another: deliberately creating out-groups based on characteristics over which people have no say.  

In our noisy world, it has become far too easy to judge others based on insufficient, misleading, or illusory information (I appreciate Sam Harris’ courage in addressing these topics on his Making Sense podcast, most recently in episodes 366 and 367 discussing urban warfare and campus protests). To judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin—as Dr. King hoped we would—requires us to check our superficial conclusions at the door, to suspend our agenda and enter the business of relationships with an open mind, to slow down, to be quiet, to close our eyes and see. Off to the minefield we go. 


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