I have been teaching a course in Critical Thinking that finishes this week and it has been a lot of fun. I love questioning status quo thinking, challenging conclusions, discovering underlying assumptions, recognizing bias, and helping students to realize that knowledge is always an approximation. However–I would hate for them to go away from the class having fallen into the trap of relativism, which is NOT the same thing as critical thinking. It is important for leaders to know the difference.
Relativism is the notion that there is no reality outside our own skulls. All perceptions are of equal value because there is no ultimate standard by which to measure perception and, even if there were, there would be no way to get at it because we are dependent on our imperfect human faculties.
A simple example can easily disprove this. I was at the airport in Santiago, Chile. We were waiting for the pilot to complete whatever pilots do so we could back out and start down the runway. Suddenly, I jumped because I perceived that the plane was moving forward and would crash into the terminal in front of us. In fact, however, it was the plane next to us that was pulling out which gave me the sensation that we were moving forward.
My perception was wrong. Now, if someone’s perception can be wrong, that means there is a right. Though all perceptions are approximations, not all perceptions are of equal value. Some perceptions more closely align with reality than others do.
This is where leaders with integrity must be willing to defend what is right, even as they simultaneiously open their ideas to the possibility of correction through public dialogue. Critical thinking does not mean that you have to become cynical about truth. It means you are willing to engage in public discussion. I see three leadership values that must not be lost in our pursuit of critical thinking: passion, conviction, and courage.
- Passion is the ability to engage your message emotionally. Leaders are not cold, calculating, or robotic, characters who only engage the mind. They are able to engage both the mind and the emotions without becoming enslaved by either.
- Conviction is moral certitude about your message. While absolute certainty is the prerogative of God alone, moral certainty is what happens when we have enough evidence to commit.
- Courage is the willingness to stand up for your convictions. The world needs leaders who are willing to go against the grain when truth and consensus are not the same thing or when evil is present. Tolerance is wrong when it mean tolerance of evil.
But, you might be asking, isn’t this dangerous? Isn’t there a danger that passion could overpower reason? Isn’t there a danger that conviction could blind us to disconfirming data? Isn’t there a danger that courage could rob us of legitimate caution?
Table. Impression Management Versus Courage
|Impression Management||Moral Courage|
|Conformity to the collective||Conformity to the truth|
|Follow your interests||Follow God’s intersts|
|Seek to dominate||See to serve||Clay in the hands of change||Clay in the hands of God|
|Deny existence of evil||Expose and resist evil|
|Deny failure and cover it up||Confess failure|
|Go along||Be an agent of change|
|Constrained by political correctness||constrained by truth|
|Shut the mouths of opposition||Encourage robust yet civil dialogue|
|Self-sufficiency||Sufficient in God|
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