McCausland’s Laws: Leadership and Critical Thinking

In my talks on leadership I frequently point out that the one thing that makes leaders different from everyone else is that THEY DECIDE! Though the effective leader wants to be open to input from as many perspectives as possible, the leader is the ultimate decision maker and must also decide when he/she is going to decide! As a result critical thinking is essential if a leader is going to make the best possible decisions in today’s complex and ever changing world.

Obviously, that begs a very important question – how do we define critical thinking? While there are various definitions, the one I like is as follows:

Critical thinking is the ability to effectively receive information, recall prior information, assimilate information by comparing differences and determining cause and effect, and evaluating the information to make decisions and solve problems.

This has to be done in a timely fashion to insure sound execution by the team. Leaders must seek to develop their critical thinking skills, and there are numerous historical examples where it was not done well. Here are some illustrations:

The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty…a fad.
— President of Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company in 1903.     

I dont like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out….
— Decca Record Executive on turning down the Beatles

Video wont be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.
— Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox Studios, on television in 1946.

How then does a leader develop critical thinking skills and what pitfalls are there? In reality, the best approach is to consider the scientific method. First, identify the question and associated problem. This may sound easy, but in reality it is both fundamental and hard. It is fundamental because failure to do so may move all of the organization’s analysis in the wrong direction. Taking the time at the outset to really ascertain what is the real problem and associated question is key. Second, formulate a hypothesis. Why are things occurring in this fashion that presents our team with a problem? Third, seek relevant data. This can also be difficult because we now have so many means to extract data. Consequently, it is essential to question whether or not the data is valid. How was it gathered? Is it a representative sample? What definitions were used? What are implicit and explicit assumptions associated with the data. Fourth, test the hypothesis and evaluate the results. Finally, from the analysis, draw reliable conclusions that are appropriate to your organization while carefully considering your mission, vision, and values.

Based on my experience in the military, government, academia, and business I have formulated the following list of McCausland’s Laws that may be helpful as you develop these critical thinking skills:

  • Never assume logic plays a role, particularly when dealing with bureaucracies.

  • For every problem, there is a short-term seemingly easy solution that is often the worst thing you can do in the long term.

  • When explaining how something happened, do not neglect the possibility that your opponent/competition just screwed up.

  • Long range planning may only be tomorrow afternoon for your organization, BUT it is still really important and somebody needs to do it.

  • If two people agree on everything, one of them is not thinking at all.

  • Facts are important but placing them in the correct context is REALLY important.

  • Don’t forget that your opponent/competition can influence your strategy and decision.

Leaders in the 21st century would be wise to consider the words of Alvin Toffler, a futurist and author of the book Future Shock. Toffler observed, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”


Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran, Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

What can corporate leaders learn from the military?

military corporate

I was recently asked to give a talk by a corporate leader on this question and spent a great deal of time thinking about it. Having spent over thirty years in the US Army and commanded at several levels to include leading soldiers in combat, I hoped that I would have something useful to share. Since retiring from the military I have had the opportunity to speak on leadership and conduct many leadership workshops, so the question intrigued me.

One thing that makes examining the military organizations interesting is that they are all the same. A mechanize infantry or artillery battalion is designed respectively to have the same number of soldiers, same equipment, and an equal number of junior leaders. Each of them is supposed to have specific training and experience that qualifies them for their position. Despite this fact, some units perform better than others even if they are in the same location and have the same mission. The difference is often leadership throughout the organization. President Dwight Eisenhower defined leadership as “the ability to decide what has to be done, and then get people to want to do it.” This power is often the ingredient that separates success from failure. So what can corporate leaders learn by looking at the military?

Leadership is “background music”

Author John W. Gardner once noted that the first and last task of any leader is to keep “hope alive.” I had the honor of working in the Pentagon while General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few years ago had the opportunity to have a private dinner with him. General Powell used to frequently say, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” The members of your organization may reach your level of optimism and enthusiasm but will only rarely exceed it. An effective leader knows that he or she must present a strong belief that the team will be successful and keep their doubts private.

Management by walking around….

Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching….” The film Captain Phillips, the true story of the captain of a supertanker ship, is a perfect example. He and his crew were taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia and were eventually rescued by the US Navy. Phillips was a very successful ship captain and displayed a great deal of courage during this ordeal. When asked what he thought was the primary reason he had been successful for many years, he observed that the first thing he did every morning and the last thing he did every night was to walk the full length of the ship. He went into every compartment and spoke to every member of the crew.

Successful military commanders do the same thing. Clearly, when you are “managing by walking around” you are looking for potential problems. But the effective leader is also looking for successes and opportunities. Which young soldier is doing a great job and should be complimented? Which young officer needs a few minutes of mentoring about his or her future? Which NCO has a personal problem and needs someone to discuss it with?

Adaptability beats efficiency

I had the good fortune to get to know General Stan McChrystal, former US commander in Afghanistan while I was on active duty and am a greater admirer of his. Early in the war in Afghanistan, Stan said, “In 2004 we were successful in all our operations…but we were losing the war.”

Leadership is often about dealing with change, and I once worked for a general who used to say, “If you don’t like change…you are going to like irrelevance even less.” Leaders must lead and manage change in their organization. It is one of their fundamental responsibilities. But they must also establish a climate of initiative and innovation that allow their organization not only to succeed but also to keep succeeding. Military history is replete with defeats that were due to a failure to innovate and change.

In 1903 Henry Ford attempted to get a loan from a Michigan bank to establish his car company. The banker rejected his application and told him, “The horse is here to stay… the motor car is a fad.” Leadership is the ability to know when to accept change, and when to ignore the banker.