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Thinking for yourself

Date Released: Sun, 15 July 2012 12:48 +0200

By Andre van Heerden, Director at The Power of Integrity Ltd.


Leading like you mean it and defining reality are impossible tasks for any aspiring leader who does not think deeply about people, society, work, and life in general.

In the first instance you have to know precisely what you mean, and in the second you need to understand the reality before you can define it.

Yet I often meet resistance from managers when I recommend setting aside ten minutes every day to reflect on the issues confronting them as leaders.

I specify only ten minutes because I know that once they engage in some quality thinking, they will extend the period, because it saves time in all other areas.

Why do most people prefer to avoid serious thinking about challenging issues?  Ancient wisdom and modern psychology agree that human nature is a big part of the problem.

It has often led to a myopia that threatened the survival of civilisation itself, for example, the failure of the western democracies to respond to the totalitarian threats of the 1930s until it was too late.  And we see it today in the hapless attempts to deal with the financial crisis.

The fact that the world is comprehensible to us means that to refrain from using our intellect is to reject the dignity of being human.  Indeed, our ability to reason implies a responsibility to use it for the obvious purpose of discerning truth, and acting accordingly.

This involves exercising our free will to make choices in accordance with personal conscience.  If we do not think for ourselves, our conscience will be shaped by some ideology or other; and ideology is any worldview that tries to stop people thinking for themselves.

Freedom of thought is the most basic human right, but it demands the self-discipline to nurture, build, and use our intellect to the full.

Today there are many constraints against thinking for oneself.

Post-modern scepticism and relativism fuel misleadership by declaring that we make our own truth.  Schooling focused on skills training and social control fails to equip young people with the knowledge and character essential to thinking for oneself.

Political correctness stifles thought by making certain things unsayable, while a suffocating media presence makes being alone with one’s thoughts decidedly counter-cultural.

Specialisation discourages inter-disciplinary communication, fatalism convinces people that our plight is hopeless, and victimhood screams that everybody else is to blame.

In the face of all this, the appeal of the quick fix and an easy way out misleads millions to put their faith in template solutions and the latest fads.

Awareness of these obstacles is the first step in overcoming them.  Thereafter, we need to grow our intellectual horizons by reading good books, and set aside dedicated time for daily reflection.  We also need to understand what we do when we think.

We think in order to know or to gain knowledge — that is the purpose of reflection.  We think to discover the truth about ourselves and the world around us.

Knowledge is truth: there is no such thing as false knowledge, only false information.  When we know something, we have the truth, even though our knowledge may be limited in scope.

Rational thinking involves three distinct mental acts:

    Understanding concepts or ideas, which we express as terms or names

    Making judgments about facts, which we express as propositions or premises

    Reasoning about causes, which we express as arguments

We evaluate terms as either clear or unclear, while propositions are either true or false, and arguments are either valid or invalid.

A term is clear if it can be comprehended without ambiguity.  A proposition is said to be true if it accurately represents reality.  And an argument is valid if the conclusion is a necessary consequence of the premises from which it is inferred.

In any rational dispute, the side that presents clear terms in propositions known to be true, in a validly structured argument, has proved its case.

It has defined reality and won the argument, even if the other side has won the audience through emotional appeals, mud-slinging, or deceit.

Thinking for yourself should start with Kant’s questions (Who am I?  What may I hope?  What ought I to do?) but there is much to go on with thereafter.

Leaders in business should be thinking constantly about staff, customers, community, goals, and performance, asking questions like these:

  • Are our customers enthusiastic about doing business with us?
  • Are they inspired to talk to others about our service?
  • What do we bring to this community?
  • Are our people inspired to make our vision a reality?
  • Do they live up to the commitments they have made in being part of the team?
  • Are they enthusiastic and confident in their work?
  • Are they properly trained and equipped?
  • Are the workloads too heavy or too light?
  • Do people regularly provide and receive constructive feedback?
  • Are our people innovative?
  • Are we as efficient as we need to be?
  • Where are we profitable and where are we unprofitable?
  • Are we closer to realising our vision than we were last week?

This troubled world needs people who think for themselves, people capable of self-leadership, who want the best for others.

This is hard in a socio-political atmosphere that conditions us to go with the flow, but that is our challenge.  Thinking produces leaders; conditioning produces misleaders.

The above is a précis of Chapter Five of Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. In the next article, Andre will consider Education and personal growth.