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"Critical Thinking" - the Buzzword of the Modern Society?

The phrase "critical thinking" has become one of the buzzwords flying around the heads of individuals engaged in almost every aspect of modern society, from business to philosophy. However, although this concept might appear new, its tenets are very old, tracing back to the "Greek Greats" like Socrates who first promoted the idea of critical thinking via his method of "Socratic reasoning." Since then, of course, the particular methods have changed, both with time and also with application to various disciplines, but at its core, critical thinking remains "the skill of making decisions based on good reasons." This is, of course, far easier said than done; emotions, skewed logic, faulty reasoning, and other impediments to good decision-making get in the way of "making decisions based on good reasons."

Aug 3, 2016   /   Visits: 4,437

Critical Thinking Buzzword
Thus, it is good to have a tool. Luckily, Browne and Keeley offer a multi-step guide to assessing specific documents, quandaries, proposals, and other items and situations. This guide is helpful because it breaks down the task of evaluating these things into manageable, understandable sections, and results in the acquisition of good reasons for making decisions (even if the "good reason" which results is, in fact, the determination that the document or situation under scrutiny is founded upon no good reasons). This paper will analyze a memo written by A. Ravaswami (personal communication) using this multi-step model to determine whether or not it has merit. The paper will be organized according to the steps of the model, and conclusions will be reached only when all steps have been taken.

Issues and Conclusions

Browne and Keeley ask critical thinkers to first assess the issues and conclusions of the (in this case) document. Here, the issue is a leadership development program proposed by Forsythe, a staff member, to train 20 employees per year at the Aspen Leadership Institute of Colorado at a total cost of $200,000 per year ($100,000 in direct costs, and $100,000 in lost time on the job). Ravaswami's conclusion is that this program is unnecessary and potentially harmful to CHCM (the company where both Ravaswami and Forsythe work).


Ravaswami's primary stated reason for opposing this proposal is that leaders are made, not trained; thus, it would be a great waste of money for CHCM to invest in this leadership development program as the company already has a dozen "natural-born" leaders already at the helm in senior leadership positions. He includes several "sub-reasons" under this primary one, including the leadership theory which puts forth the idea that leaders all possess certain qualities (e.g. ambition and self-confidence) that are innate, and cannot be learned; as support for this reason he cites Wikipedia's entry on leadership. He also includes the physical height of several U.S. leaders, all of whom were/are over 6 feet tall, and points out that all of the leaders at CHCM are over six feet tall, with one exception (Forsythe).

He also says that if 20 junior executives are sent to this training program, then many others will request that they, too, be sent, and that the company cannot afford this outlay of money. His third reason relates to this, which is that spending the money on training programs to train people who don't possess adequate leadership qualities will take money away from recruitment efforts to find and hire people who already have these qualities.

Finally, Ravaswami suggests that the entire reason Forsythe is proposing this leadership development program is to discredit him (as she covets his job) and push the ideas of the Aspen Leadership Institute - ideas that are contrary to the values of CHCM.

Ambiguous Words and Phrases

Ravaswami includes several words and phrases that are ambiguous. For example, he states that "since our leadership has been successful and effective without such programs it appears that leaders are born, not made." This follows the statement that the company has grown 12% per annum since it began 50 years ago. This is ambiguous because it does not make a clear case that effective leadership is the reason for this growth; in fact, the company might have grown despite the leadership. Moreover, it might have grown 20% per year, not 12%, had the leadership been better. This is not clear.

Another ambiguous phrase is the following: "it appears that leaders are born, not made." He throws a couple of citations into the memo and insinuates that these represent the sum total of inquiry into the concept of leadership in business when, in fact, this is an enormous field and full of evidence that contradicts this "leaders are made" statement. As further "supportive evidence" of this, Ravaswami includes another vague statement about Winston Churchill and Mother Theresa and the qualities they possessed. What does this have to do with a leadership training program in Aspen?

However, he truly shows his hand with this ambiguous question: "Is she motivated by the liberal notion that all citizens of a free nation have the right to pursue education and can achieve anything they desire?" It is ambiguous not in its meaning, but in its placement in this memo. What, again, does this have to do with a leadership training program? Thus, it is vague.

Value and Descriptive Assumptions

Ravaswami definitely makes use of value assumptions in this memo. First, as noted above, he argues that only "bleeding hearts" believe that all individuals should have the right to pursue an education and achieve whatever they desire. He clearly believes the opposite, which is a value assumption. Second, he states that the theories of the Aspen Institute are not appropriate for people at CHCM. That is a clear value assumption.

One of his descriptive assumptions is that he believes that leadership development programs are a waste of money, because they do not train leaders (as leaders are born that way, and if one is not born a leader, one cannot become a leader). That is a descriptive assumption, that those without clearly demonstrable leadership qualities should not be trained in leadership skills. Another is when he says that Forsythe is "out to get him" and promote the tenets of the Aspen Institute. Does he have proof of either of these things, or is he merely describing reality as he sees it? Finally, he asserts that everyone will want to go to this leadership program if some are sent to it - that is an assumption based upon no clear evidence to support it.

Fallacies in Reasoning

Ravaswami's memo contains several instances of fallacious reasoning. First, his insistence upon Forsythe's "hidden agenda" and secret desire for his job would be considered a Red Herring fallacy. This is irrelevant, even if it is true, and has nothing to do with the proposal at hand. His assertion that the height of the senior leaders at CHCM is significant is actually a fallacy along two lines. First, it is an Appeal to Popularity, since the implication is that most leaders are tall, and since height is genetically determined, so is leadership. Second, it is an example of Begging the Question, since his argument begins with his conclusion: that leadership is genetically inbred, not learned. The fact that his first argument is not a proven fact (i.e. it has not been proven that leadership is genetic) renders the whole thing fallacious. He also makes a Correlation Fallacy along these lines; namely, that because some great leaders were/are tall, including those at CHCM, then all great leaders should be tall (and, conversely, anyone who is not tall, such as Forsythe, is de facto not a great leader).

Finally, Ravaswami makes use of the Ad Hominem fallacy when he attacks Forsythe. Instead of focusing upon the merits of the situation itself, he attacks her character which diverts attention away from what should be the focus of the memo.

Quality of Evidence

Ravaswami has only one reasonably strong piece of evidence: the expense of the leadership program. Then again, it is difficult to tell if this is good evidence, given that we do not know the overall budget of CHCM. However, this can be granted, that $200,000 is a lot to spend on 20 executives given that they may or may not bring back this kind of value to the corporation.

His other evidence is shaky at best. Leaders are tall? They are born, not made (which contradicts the latest research in the field of leadership)? CHCM has been doing well so far so it has no need to do better? We cannot consider leadership programs because the person who proposed them wants to steal my job? These items cannot be counted as true evidence, but rather as emotional rantings and indications of a belief system based upon outmoded research.

Rival Causes

There is one definite rival cause in this memo; namely, that CHCM has increased 12% per year because (so states Ravaswami) the leadership is stellar. However, as noted above, perhaps this growth is despite, not because of, the leadership there. Perhaps the company would have grown much more every year had the leadership been better. So, to assume that the present leadership is stellar because of this fact is hasty, to say the least. There is another implied rival cause as well, which is that Forsythe is proposing this program as a way to push Ravaswami out of his job. This might be true; it might also be true that she genuinely believes in the program; or she might actually want to push someone else out of a job. Many causes might be driving her proposal, and the desire for Ravaswami's job is only one possible cause.

Deceptive Statistics

Ravaswami makes good use of deceptive statistics in his memo, particularly with his table showing the heights of several past and present leaders from US politics; he also is deceptive in noting the heights of the current senior staff, as well as of Forsythe, as if any of this means anything. At best, height is correlated with leadership, and even this is far from proven with Ravaswami's little table. He also uses statistics at the beginning of the memo to insinuate that the present leadership of CHCM is responsible for the growth of 12% per annum. Again, this may or may not be true. Moreover, this is a 50-year-old company; surely these leaders have not been around for 50 years. So, have all the leaders at CHCM been tall "born leader" types?

Significant Omissions

Ravaswami omits much in his memo. He leaves out the great preponderance of research into leadership which shows that many leadership-related skills can, in fact, be learned. He leaves out the overall impact of $200,000 upon the budget of CHCM; it might be a huge impact, or it might be relatively miniscule. He omits all information about the Aspen Institute; had he truly wanted a fair evaluation of the program, he would have included it. He also leaves out any reasonable alternative for these junior executives who are most likely desirous of some sort of training (leadership or otherwise) - in the absence of any proposed alternatives, his memo feels incomplete. Finally, Ravaswami also omits any solid evidence concerning his allegations that Forsythe is "after his job." This is a significant omission, because without evidence supporting his charge, he not only leaves himself open to accusations of slander, but he also paints himself to be rather paranoid (and thus someone to be taken less seriously then he clearly would prefer).


If there are valid reasons why CHCM should not send 20 junior executives each year to a training program at Aspen Leadership Institute, they were not presented in Ravaswami's memo. Thus, a good critical thinker can reach only one conclusion (or, worded in the language of critical thinking, make only one decision). S/He must decide that Ravaswami has not presented an adequate case for dismissing the idea, and that s/he needs to do more research into the situation to determine whether or not this leadership training is a good idea for CHCM. If the critical thinker decides to go with Ravaswami, then s/he has not seen the fallacies, omissions, and other flaws in logic; if s/he decides to go against Ravaswami, then s/he is making the assumption that just because he made a bad case means that the basic idea is a good one. Thus, the only reasonable decision in this case is that Ravaswami did not adequately cover the matter and more inquiry is needed.


Browne, M.N., & Keeley, S.M. Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking. New York: Pearson Longman Publishing.

Hunter, D.A.. A practical guide to critical thinking: Deciding what to do and believe.Hoboken, NJ: John J. Wiley and Sons Publishing.

Rainbolt, G.W., & Dwyer, S.L. Critical thinking: The art of argument. Boston, MA, USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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