I remember a time when intelligence (critical thinking) was the undisputed champion of leadership capabilities. No surprise, since science proves that intelligence accounts for 20% of leadership success, far more than any other factor. It’s a necessity for enlightened direction and decisions. No surprise either, that many other factors crowded in to fill the open space: personality assessments, strengths assessments, Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Servant Leadership, Inclusion, Collaboration, and others.
This veritable stew of ingredients has caused confusion for leaders as separate tools, training and tributes compete for their time and attention. Often critical thinking is not in the limelight. Should it be?
Although many of the softer side factors such as EQ and Servant Leadership are important ingredients, these approaches should share the winner’s podium with harder core critical thinking smarts. Not as individual winners but as part of a winning team. Yes, the myth that the smartest person in the room is the best leader is increasingly seen as a fallacy. But critical thinking should be a prominent part of the mix when it comes to who is or will be, the best leader.
Moving from Isolation to Integration of Smarts
Is there a way to combine critical thinking smarts with other kinds of softer-side smarts? Or a better way to avoid the tendency to deliver parts and pieces in isolation versus being integrated? A clever way to do this comes from the work of Justin Menkes who researched the intelligence of top-performing CEOs. He captured three kinds of thinking intelligence with underlying actions that impact decisions and, in turn, leader success.
Three Kinds of Thinking Smarts and Related Skills
Thinking about tasks smarts. Great leaders are great problem solvers who think critically to define a problem, anticipate obstacles, examine their own assumptions, and reach out and consider multiple perspectives. This set of skills is shot through with people skills such as trusting other’s perspectives and listening when they disagree with you.
Ten years after Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, he applied what he learned from watching leaders at Pixar. When he came back to Apple, he was a different and better problem solver. He wanted to put all of Apple’s chips on music devices. His team of future clever technologists disagreed and pushed the iPhone. The older and wiser Steve Jobs listened and changed his mind. Can you imagine Apple if he had not?
Thinking about people smarts. Great leaders recognize underlying agendas and motivations of people and anticipate their likely emotional reactions. They identify and resolve the core issues central to conflict and balance the different needs of stakeholders. Leaders who are smart about people know how to engage people with diverse backgrounds and ideas, to solve critical problems even in crazy times, like now.
Think about the people smarts come from leaders we read about who have more successfully navigated the pandemic, including New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. They have paved a highway of trust and credibility for people to venture forth to an uncertain future. Those who are not so smart about people may have won the immediate battle but are not prepared to win the war.
Thinking about yourself smarts. Great leaders are hungry for feedback. They chew it up without spitting it out. They act on it. They recognize their limitations and are conscious of how their core personality, related biases, and blindsides impact their thinking and relationships. These leaders make it safe for people to point out when they make errors in judgment. They publicly acknowledge mistakes and adjust making it safe for others to learn from failure.
Consider Warren Buffett who admitted the mistake of deciding to buy part of a company he knew nothing about. Against his better judgment and in a moment of pique, he bought the company so he could fire the chairman. Not only did he tell his employees about his mistake, but he also came clean with his shareholders. He confessed that due to his faulty thinking, he suddenly had 25 percent of his investment tied up “in a terrible business about which I knew very little. … I became the dog who caught the car.”
The “So What” For Me
Leaders I coach ask, “Should I be an inclusive, collaborative servant leader or be a super-smart decisive leader?” or, “Should I be good at using critical thinking or be good at building relationships?” I smile and say, it’s not an “either/or” choice. It’s an “it depends” choice. I use the frame of the three kinds of thinking. I find that weaving together thinking about tasks, people and you brings substance and specificity to leadership. I like how it integrates business and people, compactly combining IQ, EQ, and SQ (self-intelligence) and so do they.