Want to be a thought leader? Develop your critical-thinking skills

Five steps to developing these skills so you can be an architect of evolution


In a recent FireRescue1 article by Thomas E. Poulin, Ph.D., and Hilda Moses, Ph.D., we are presented with five debate-worthy questions for fire and EMS members.

I want to focus on an aspect of the fifth question – “Who are our current and future thought leaders?” – not specifically identifying who are thought leaders, but rather what thought leadership is about, so we can develop these leaders in the future.

Leaders needed for evolution

In the fire services, as in life, thought leadership is usually the missing link that will connect the comfort of today with the fear, excitement and evolution of tomorrow. (Photo/DoD)
In the fire services, as in life, thought leadership is usually the missing link that will connect the comfort of today with the fear, excitement and evolution of tomorrow. (Photo/DoD)

In a recent discussion with Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Denis Onieal, Ph.D., about the above-referenced article, Onieal commented that, “Unfortunately, many view the kinds of questions you raise as revolutionary; few realize they are evolutionary – that we have been in a continual process of change and adaptation for the last 200 years.” Learning what causes revolutions and understanding the evolution is one of our biggest 21st century fire service challenges.

The fear of change or the unknown, and myopic thinking are typically the root of revolution. In the fire services, as in life, thought leadership is usually the missing link that will connect the comfort of today with the fear, excitement and evolution of tomorrow.

5 steps for improved critical thinking

It is clear we will always need “worker bees” to get the job done, yet we will also always need leaders if we’re going to advance and evolve. Recognizing that if everyone was a professor, there’d be no new students, we do need to seek out those among us who are thought leaders – leaders who can push for advancement.

Being a thought leader can be an ethereal experience, yet it is not always an academic exercise. Training and education certainly provide the developmental basis and methodology for the critical-thinking process, but it’s up to current thought leaders to mentor those around us to become the next group of progressive leaders. The philosophic questions we should be asking don’t require a doctorate, but they certainly do require the ability to think beyond which drink you’re going to order tonight.

With this in mind, here are five steps to help develop critical-thinking skills:

1. Be introspective. Looking at yourself first in problem-solving exercises is usually an enlightening process. Identifying your own biases, strengths and weaknesses is the basis for developing a critical-thinking process.

2. Ask basic questions. Think KISS (Keep It So Simple). Not every question has to be like a dissertation. The KISS principle will not only help you refine your process but will also help you relate to a broader base of firefighters.

3. LISTEN. You can’t listen, think and speak at the same time. If you want to learn, you have to listen. If you’ve developed the answer before you’ve asked the question, then you’re not listening.

4. Analyze what you hear and learn from your listening. Hearing what others have to say and processing what you hear is just as important as understanding your own biases. Taking the time to analyze is not a weakness when time is on your side. That said, you have to learn when enough analysis is enough.

5. Develop foresight through the analysis of every angle. Once you’ve looked “inside,” you’ve asked the questions, you’ve listened to the responses, and you’ve analyzed all the data, it’s time to “publish” your findings – your critical thinking. “Publishing” might be a paper, an article, a class or a standard operating procedure (SOP). If you think about many of your existing procedures, I suspect you’ll find that many of them have been developed on some basis some “if-this, then-that” observations and analysis.

Of course, critical thinking alone is not enough. Thinking and process must be followed by development and action. Without action, all the observation, analysis and development is just a thought.

Be an architect of evolution

In referencing the phrase “200 years of history, unimpeded by progress,” Dr. Onieal aptly noted, “The nay-sayers and cynics are there to keep thinkers like you on your toes.”

I challenge you to be the next thought leader for your organization, and for the fire services in general. Be an architect of evolutionary change, as opposed to an accessory or a victim of a revolutionary process.

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