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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Critical Thinking

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #132

I am generally skeptical of claims that include statements like 3-easy steps, 5-steps to success, and the four things all successful leaders do. These types of recipes tend to try to oversimplify complex processes. Still, I decided to read an article by Bruce Tulgan titled Master the 3 Basic of Critical Thinking. The paper established some credibility with me because it was published in Psychology Today, and the subtitle read, "Critical thinking is a whole lot harder than it looks."

In the article, he explains how essential it is for leaders to have a mastery of critical thinking. According to this article, there are three core components of critical thinking: being proactive in learning, effectively solving problems, and making sound decisions.

The article lends credibility to the idea that there are more complex strategies for achieving success than simply following proven formulas. It also recognizes that critical thinking is often more complicated than it appears.

Critical thinking is a process that combines analyzing information, questioning assumptions, and making sound judgments while considering other perspectives. It is an essential skill for leaders facing complex issues and when making decisions that can impact their organizations and personnel.

According to Tulgan, the three basics of critical thinking are explained as follows:

  • Proactive Learning: Proactive learners actively seek knowledge, ask questions, take responsibility for their learning, engage in critical inquiry, embrace problem-solving, reflect on their experiences, and adapt to new challenges and knowledge.

  • Problem-Solving: Critical thinking serves as the foundation for effective problem-solving. It involves problem analysis, generating solutions, decision-making, and continuous improvement based on logical reasoning and evidence.

  • Decision-Making: The ability to make sound decisions is linked to recognizing the connection between cause and effect. Experience alone is insufficient; individuals must pay attention, draw intentional conclusions from their experiences, and identify patterns to anticipate outcomes accurately.

The article underscores the importance of critical thinking to successful leadership. It suggests that getting a handle on its fundamentals can arm leaders with the ability to come up with wise decisions and tackle issues effectively.

Proactive Learning

Being proactive in learning is an integral part of critical thinking. It involves actively seeking and engaging with knowledge, skills, and understanding. Rather than passively accepting common thinking, exploring, analyzing, and evaluating information and ideas is essential. Thus, it is a self-directed process that seeks to enhance one's understanding and reasoning abilities.

The article's author suggests that the best way to build strong mental muscles is the same as physical muscles – exercise them. I believe becoming a proactive, self-directed learner will enhance a leader's critical thinking ability. The following are what I think are the key aspects of proactive learning in relationship to critical thinking.

  • Curiosity: Proactive learners are naturally curious and motivated to explore topics and issues. They ask questions, seek out diverse perspectives, and actively pursue information to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

  • Self-direction: Proactive learners take responsibility for their own learning. They set goals, plan their learning strategies, and monitor their progress. They are not solely reliant on formal education but actively seek opportunities for self-improvement and growth.

  • Critical inquiry: Proactive learners engage in critical thinking by accessing information and arguments critically. They evaluate sources for credibility, detect biases, and weigh evidence to form well-informed opinions and conclusions.

  • Problem-solving: Proactive learners embrace challenges and problem-solving opportunities. They apply their critical thinking skills to analyze complex issues, identify solutions, and make informed decisions.

  • Reflection: Proactive learners regularly reflect on their learning experiences and the outcomes of their critical thinking efforts. They consider improving their approach, refining their thinking, and adapting to new information.

  • Adaptability: Proactive learning is flexible and adaptable. Learners adjust their strategies and thinking in response to changing circumstances and new information, allowing them to improve their critical thinking abilities continuously.

To truly embrace proactive learning in the context of critical thinking, one must go beyond merely memorizing information. It entails actively engaging with data, asking questions, self-directing one's learning, critically evaluating information, problem-solving, reflecting on one's growth, and adapting to new challenges and knowledge.


People new to a formal leadership position often believe that they should have the answer to all problems, and if they don't, they will be judged as ineffective. Tulgan makes two important points while writing about problem-solving.

  1. "Usually, you don't need to make important decisions based on your own judgment" (Tulgan, 2023).

  2. "Ready-made solutions are just best practices captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids" (Tulgan, 2023).

I see solving problems and using critical thinking skills as two sides of the same coin. They are bonded together; here's how:

  • Critical Thinking as a Foundation: Critical thinking is the ability to think deeply and thoroughly about information, arguments, and situations. It involves assessing and analyzing the data to make informed decisions objectively. This skill of discernment provides the groundwork for effective problem-solving strategies.

  • Problem Analysis: Once a problem is identified, critical thinking helps analyze it thoroughly. Critical thinkers break down complex issues into smaller components, examine the causes and effects, and explore potential solutions. They use logical reasoning and evidence to understand the problem's nature and scope.

  • Generating Solutions: Problem-solving is the practical application of critical thinking. After analyzing a problem, individuals use their critical thinking skills to create possible solutions or strategies. Critical thinkers consider the pros and cons of different approaches, anticipate potential outcomes, and make informed choices.

  • Decision-Making: Critical thinking informs the decision-making process in problem-solving. Leaders and individuals rely on critical thinking to evaluate potential solutions and select the most appropriate one based on their analysis, reasoning, and judgment.

  • Continuous Improvement: Critical thinking is not limited to the initial problem-solving stage. It also involves reflecting on the outcomes of decisions and actions, seeking feedback, and adjusting strategies as needed. This ongoing evaluation and adjustment are essential for continuous improvement and learning from experience.

In other words, critical thinking is the basis of productive problem-solving. It encourages people to assess problems and create thoughtful solutions. Problem-solving then puts these ideas into practice. Both are important for success in work, decision-making, and personal growth.


The third premise of the article is decision-making. The author states that making good decisions isn't just about being smart or having a lot of knowledge. It's not a question of how much you can remember or your technical skills. Decision-making exceeds all that.

I believe when it comes to making sound decisions, it's all about the ability to recognize likely outcomes–the connection between cause and effect. The funny part is that to be able to look towards the future, you must learn from the past. This is how we develop our "go forward" approach when predicting the effects of one set of events or actions over another.

Experience is a great teacher, but it will not automatically lead to better decision-making. To learn from experience, one must pay attention and draw intentional conclusions from what they have experienced. If you can recognize the pattern between cause and effect, you can anticipate it more accurately. Ultimately, that's the key to making sound choices.

To sum up, incorporating systematic learning within the scope of critical thinking involves actively understanding information, posing questions, self-directing one's studies, examining data critically, solving problems, assessing personal progress, and adapting to fresh issues and knowledge. As the bedrock of problem-solving, critical thinking encourages analyzing a situation and forming thoughtful solutions. Even though experience can be beneficial, without attention to it and deciphering what it teaches us, better decision-making cannot be guaranteed. We must recognize patterns and links between cause and effect to make accurate predictions and sound judgments. Both proactive learning and critical thinking are fundamental for success at work, decision-making, and personal growth.


Tulgan, B. (2023). Master the 3 Basics of Critical Thinking. Psychology Today. 15, 2023


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