Setting a Direction

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This is the fourth part of a multi-part Blog on Executive Leadership

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

The key component in setting a direction is strategic thinking. In other words, senior leaders cannot allow themselves to be mired in the present—or the past—and must be focused on the future through a “top down” lens. But the senior leader must understand the potential impact—positive or negative—on the organization, its people, its customers or clients, and even its competitors. As today’s world has become globalized, with interconnected and interdependent processes and organizations, decisions made by senior leaders may, in fact, carry with it global impact. 

Strategic thinking is as much an art as it is a science. This is because it requires a close analysis of assumptions and potential outcomes, with the end state being conclusions upon which the organization charts its course for the future. This analytical approach requires critical thinking as a core competency for senior leaders. According to Hagemann et al. (2014), the 10 key components of critical thinking for executives include:

·         Creative thinking ·         Problem solving
·         Strategic thinking ·         Cognitive readiness
·         Decision making ·         Sense making
·         Attentional control ·         Adaptability
·         Intuition ·         Metacognition

Let’s take a closer look at some of the components of Critical Thinking as they relate to Strategic Thinking.

Creative Thinking. Creative thinking is a method by which one examines problems or situations from a fresh perspective. This may lead to unique or innovative solutions, by may also seem unsettling. A common process used to enable creative thinking is brainstorming. While creative thinking and critical thinking are both fundamental to how we learn, there are differences. Critical thinking is an active, detailed, and persistent examination based on knowledge or evidence that leads to logical conclusions or supporting entering theses, whereas creative thinking is often less structured and leads to generation of new ideas.

Problem Solving. Problem solving is the process of working through data, situations, or problems to reach a solution. Problem solving is regarded as our most complex intellectual capability, defined in psychological terms as a higher-order cognitive process requiring modulation and control of fundamental skills, consisting of four basic steps:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Generating alternatives
  3. Evaluating & selecting alternatives
  4. Implementing solutions

Problem solving is a fundamental part of every leader and manager’s role. Being confident in your ability to identify, evaluate, and solve problems is critical to leadership success.

Strategic Thinking. Strategic thinking is the hallmark of senior leaders—it is the process by which you consider, assess, view, and create future environments for your organization, its people, and its clients. The reason strategic thinking is more prevalent at senior leadership levels than at managerial levels is that the competencies and understanding necessary are acquired over time. The Center for Simplified Strategic Planning (CSSP) published 11 critical skills necessary for strategic thinkers (Ebersole, 2016):

  1. Strategic thinkers have the ability to use the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of their brain.
  2. They are skilled at both thinking with a strategic purpose as well as creating a visioning process. They have both skills and they use them to complement each other.
  3. They clearly define their objectives and develop a strategic action plan with each objective broken down into tasks and each task having a list of needed resources and a specific timeline.
  4. They design flexibility into their plans by creating some benchmarks in their thinking to review progress. They have an innate ability to be proactive and anticipate change, rather than being reactive.
  5. They are amazingly aware and perceptive. They will recognize internal and external clues, often subtle, to help guide future direction and realize opportunities for them and their companies or organizations.
  6. They are committed lifelong learners and learn from each of their experiences. They use their experiences to enable them to think better on strategic issues.
  7. The best and greatest strategic thinkers take time out for themselves. We all need “down time” to clear our heads—strategic thinkers use this to invite new thoughts and perceptions.
  8. They are committed to and seek advice from others.
  9. They have the ability to balance their tremendous amount of creativity with a sense of realism and honesty about what is achievable in the longer term. Sometimes they refer to themselves as realistic optimists.
  10. They have the ability to be non-judgmental and they do not allow themselves to be held back or restricted by judging their own thinking or the thinking of others when ideas are initially being developed and shared.
  11. They have the ability to be patient and to not rush to conclusions and judgments. Great ideas and thoughts require time to develop into great successes in the future to reach your defined vision.

Decision Making. Decision making is the thought process involving the selection of a logical choice from available alternatives. It is essential to maintain an open aperture during this process, weighing both positive and negative components and implications of each option as the alternatives are considered. The effective decision maker injects vision into the equations, forecasting the potential outcomes and effects of each alternative before determining which option is optimal in the context of the situation and environment.

Four processes may be applied to virtually all decision making activities:

  1. The processes of decision making result in outcomes. These processes may be as simple as a single person making a decision or as complex as multi-layered organizational collaboration to bring data and intuition to the process.
  2. There must be sufficient options—or alternatives—available for decision making. The fewer the options, the more directive the context.
  3. This is the core of decision making. Choices are generally contextual; in other words, they are bound by constraints and/or restraints, usually in line with the goals and resources of the organization. The experience, knowledge, judgment, and common sense perspective or you or your team will shape the choices you make; therefore, it is imperative to approach choices with an open mind.
  4. This is the most important step—the decision itself! Leaders must realize that all decisions have consequences—both intended and unintended. The decision should include mitigating measures to reduce or eliminate identified unintended consequences. (Higson & Sturgess, 2016)

Attentional Control. Attentional control refers to the ability to choose what one pays attention to and what one ignores. In simple terms, it is the ability to concentrate. Another term associated with attentional control is executive attention, which refers to a person’s working memory and the ability to effectively block out distractions, thereby enabling focus.

Intuition. Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately, or to know or consider something as being likely, from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning. Steve Jobs referred to intuition as being more powerful than intellect. According to Carolyn Gregoire (2015), there are 10 things that highly intuitive people do differently, as indicated in Table 1:

1.       They listen to that inner voice

6.       They listen to their bodies
2.       They take time for solitude 7.       They connect deeply with others
3.       They create 8.       They pay attention to their dreams
4.       They practice mindfulness 9.       They enjoy plenty of down time
5.       They observe everything 10.   They mindfully let go of negative emotions

Many times in our lives, intuitive decision making takes place where logic and rational reasoning are overcome by subjective judgment. However, intuitive decision making is far more than simply applying common sense because it involves additional sensors that are not easily quantified—gut feelings, sixth sense, inner voice, spiritual guide, mothers’ intuition, etc. To effectively use intuitive decision making in a leadership role, one must develop a higher level of consciousness—or know and understand one’s self deeply—to be able to focus these sensors to bring intuitiveness into the conscious mind. The key to applying intuition is to understand that it is a companion to, not a substitute for, rational reasoning.

Cognitive Readiness. Cognitive readiness can be distilled into two simple words—mental preparation. This mental preparation includes the skills, knowledge, abilities, motivation, and personal disposition & professionalism necessary to be a leader. You may hear these components of cognitive readiness referred to as knowledge, skills, and attributes (KSA). Although often used to describe readiness for leaders in military operations, many similar stressors and unpredictable situations arise in executive leadership of organizations as well. In the private sector, however, these unpredictable events and stressors include stock market dives, impact of technology on traditional business models, difficulties finding qualified employees, EO/HR challenges, changing laws, and other unpredictable events.

Sense Making. Sense making is a complex area that brings together philosophical constructs and organizational process study. So, what makes the most sense, an application of philosophical constructs to organizational behavior and process or using organizational process as an illustration to point to underlying philosophical constructs? The answer is that both are viable and that sense making is, in fact, a bi-directional concept. Both directions play important roles in leadership at the executive—or strategic—level. When evaluating the organization’s processes, one starts with the processes and works toward the philosophical constructs of the organization—typically reflected in the vision and supported by strategic goals. When designing processes for a program, one starts with the underlying philosophical vision and deconstructs it into component parts that may be accomplished through defined processes—and then, like with a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in project management, one will trace back through the processes from bottom-to-top to see if they align with the vision and its philosophical foundations.

Adaptability. Adaptability is one of the most important qualities 21st Century seek in prospective and upward mobile employees. Perhaps the most applicable synonym in the business world is flexibility. As fast-paced changes in technology, regulations, global competition, diversity, and society occur, organizations need employees—and especially leaders—who can apply the competencies discussed previously to adapt and survive…or thrive…as the environment changes. This takes leaders and employees who are open to new ideas, can exercise the ability to be flexible enough as challenges occur, and react with focus when plans do not come to fruition or need to be changed. The key here is relatively simple: The essential ingredient to adaptability is effectiveness when the environment is changing.

Metacognition. One may view metacognition as one’s knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena, according to the studies contained in Zaccaro & Klimoski, Eds. (2001). Problem solvers and decision makers use cognitive skills and abilities such as inductive and/or deductive reasoning, divergent thinking, information processing and organization, and verbal reasoning in teams to arrive at effective solutions. Metacognition regulates and monitors skill application in three ways:

  1. Facilitate an understanding of the problem or question and its scope or parameters.
  2. Promote searching for and determining specific solutions to the problem or question.
  3. Monitor implementation of solutions, generate and review feedback, and adapting solutions—or plans—to changing conditions. (Zaccaro & Klimoski, Eds., 2001, p. 202-203)

Metacognition skills are necessary to facilitate unstructured, insight, and creative problems—the kind of problems that face senior leaders when both defining vision, ensuring that goals and objectives are in line with the organization’s vision, and the challenges in keeping vision viable in a changing environment. Though metacognition, the senior leadership team, along with middle managers and project teams, may generate new understandings and discover new paths to viable and attainable solutions.


Now that the elements that comprise and support critical—and strategic—thinking have been reviewed, let’s ask an important question:

Is this concept of critical thinking really that important?

Critical thinking remains at the top of the list of most important competencies for executive development, as illustrated below.

4 - top competencies for development

Top competencies for executive development. (Adapted from Hagemann et al., 2014)

While the pie chart above clearly sets forth what leading executives believe are the most important competencies to foster in developing peers and subordinates into better, more effective leaders, it is interesting to compare what the top objectives for executive development have been for the last two years. How do they match?

5 - top objectives for developmentTop Objectives for Executive Development. (Adapted from Hagemann et al., 2014)


Next week will be Part 5 of the series: Taking Responsibility.


Ebersole, J. G. (2016). Strategic thinking: 11 critical skills needed. Course and Direction. Retrieved from

Gregoire, C. (2015). 10 things highly intuitive people do differently. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Hagemann, B., Mattone, J., & Maketa, J. (2014). Trends in executive development: A benchmark report. Retrieved from

Higson, P., & Sturgess, A. (2016). Definition of decision making. The Happy Manager. Retrieved from

The nature of organizational leadership: Understanding the performance imperatives confronting today’s leaders. (2001).  (S. Zaccaro & R. Klimoski Eds.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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