“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” ― Richard W. Paul
It has come to my attention, in a drib here and a drab there, that my take on the elements of life’s journey that I have shared here can come across as seemingly ‘negative.’
I wish to address that viewpoint with a robust defense. Or at least a short one.
I am a critical realist. At least I think so and advertise (brand?) myself as such in order to keep up appearances. This comes from my roots in training in the hard sciences that have been forcibly uprooted and replanted, successfully on more than one occasion, into different soil.
What I have learned, I think, is that critical thinking is not just about making your thinking better, but making better and realistic observations so that you can better analyze more of reality so you can better think and end up with better decisions and choices that are more consistent with it. Reality, that is.
“Not knowing is not reality.” – Chuck Pierce
What drives home my viewpoint is looking at the human condition in various scenarios to which I have (intentionally) exposed myself, including looking at history, cultures, organizations, families, marriages, parenting, and encountering more than a few interesting individuals along the way.
Part of the consequence of being trained to see, is realizing the need to tell others who don’t see. Even if they don’t want to hear. The key is trying to tell them nicely. At least for a while.
Three categories where this has proven to be important come to mind.
Generals don’t advance without trying to learn more about the terrain, weather, and situation than they believe their adversaries know. They send out scouts, use intelligence, and monitor things in real time.
The news may not be great, in fact it may be quite negative, but it’s better than no news at all because you are addressing the incomplete information (Fundamental Principle 6). And you remember not to kill the messenger.
You might remember some of these people from the Bible’s Old Testament. They came in two flavors.
When Ahab sought counsel about going to war he brought in the prophets (about 400 of them, including Zedekiah) who promptly told him, “Go for it.” They were flavor #1. When asked if there was a prophet of the Lord (i.e., someone with credibility), Ahab replied, “Yes, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me.” This was Micaiah, who prophesied defeat. Ahab ignored Micaiah and went to war, and was killed. Micaiah was flavor #2. (1 Kings 22)
There were a number of other instances, but they all followed the same general pattern: the king needed counsel, the plain vanilla (flavor #1) prophets painted a rosy but unrealistic picture (incomplete information again), and the shockingly rich flavored critically realistic (flavor #2) prophet painted the unanticipated. The king then took two decisions: first, he had the shockingly rich prophet (messenger) killed, and then he followed the plain vanilla advice. Shortly thereafter, he died or met some other dubious fate.
Leaders and Two Levels of Followers
Stories abound of leaders who consciously or unconsciously surrounded themselves with people who only fed them filtered information, or became the proverbial Yes Men. While loyalty is great, it’s often misunderstood and misapplied in a dysfunctional organization.
Which leads me to thoughts on the two levels of loyal followers most often found in an organization.
Level 1 followers are those who have the health and goals of the organization primarily in mind and are competent to pursue and achieve them. They rightly assume that one of the reasons they’ve been hired is to use their competence to observe and assess reality and feed that assessment up the organization in order to protect it.
In this sense they are like armor bearers, that historical military position serving just behind their warriors. However, contrary to their title, their main purpose was not to carry the warrior’s armor and weapons. Their main responsibility was to guard the warrior’s back, to stand back to back with him during combat to protect his life, his rear guard, his rear. Consequently, he needed to be a skilled fighter himself and able to step up into leadership. And the information he passed to his leader was not only critical, but it was listened to. Their loyalty is directed at preserving the mission and the leader’s chances of succeeding at it.
Armor bearers need to be trained, to be developed.
Level 2 followers have a different sort of behavior. While they surround the leader and offer support, they tend not to confront the leader with any information that might upset the leader or his/her plans, or dribble it out slowly or incompletely so as to avoid potential wrath. They tend to become Yes Men, and their loyalty distorts into Blind Loyalty, so that they blindly do as they are told and follow where they are led. If they speak up at all with information that does not agree with the plan, they are considered Disloyal if not subversive.
In this sense they are more like lemmings. Lemmings follow those in front nose-to-tail, generally speaking, right off the cliff. As a consequence, if the lead lemming ever falls, the lemming behind moves up to leader. Unfortunately, because of their previous position, they generally don’t know where they’ve been, where they are, where they are going, or how to get there.
And the most unfortunate thing is that lemmings don’t need to be developed; they reproduce on their own, very efficiently.
If we are always positive, and this is more than just optimistic, we risk the chance that we become more like Level 2 followers: lemmings. And lemmings are like sand, there are lots of them, they don’t have much cohesion, and you ultimately don’t want to build on them.
On the other hand, an adequate dose of critical realism, while it may seem like negativity, can be considered the voice of an armor-bearer, a rock you can depend upon and build on.
While they may sometimes be an irritating in-house critic, they can prevent blunders if managed smartly and given a voice that is listened to1, 2.
I am an armor bearer, even if the life expectancy is short. And I prefer to be surrounded by armor bearers.