Vio Consulting

Critically Thinking Leaders

Previously, we advocated for hiring smart leaders. This is based upon pervasive research that has established general cognitive ability as the characteristic most critical to predicting job performance (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004). It is more predictive than personality or past job experience. Though the need to hire smart leaders is clear, businesses have not been receptive to traditional measures of intelligence due to their academic approach. 

Critical thinking has received recent attention as the more practical application of intelligence of general cognitive ability in business leaders. Companies need leaders who consistently are able to make wise decisions. A measure of critical thinking will tell you how well candidates gather, process, and apply information in order to arrive at the best conclusion (Menkes, 2005). 

You can begin to hire smart leaders by measuring critical thinking with an off-the-shelf test or by asking the right questions in your candidate interviews. While using established tests are practical and efficient, you may prefer to structure your interviews with questions that use situations that are most relevant to the leadership jobs in your company. To do this, you need to identify critical incidents within the past year or two for leaders in your company. These are situations that were significant to determining a leader’s success. From these incidents, you will need to identify the important details of the scenario, and then the actions taken. Next, you will examine the actions and classify them into the following categories: poor, adequate, or superior. Then, you will also need to identify additional actions that should or should not have been taken in the scenario in order to provide more examples of actions in each of these categories. 

Finally, you will take the scenario, and write it into a question for the interview. According to Menkes (2005), “the questions should not be designed to ask whether the candidate has a particular skill; they should be configured so that the candidate will have to demonstrate the skill in the course of answering the question.” You will also provide the categorized actions as sample answers. This provides the interviewer with a way to evaluate the candidate’s answers. 

For example, assume that your company identifies critical incidents in the last year when your most successful leaders demonstrated effectively working with others and encouraging others to do the same. A sample question may be the following scenario: 

You are the vice president of product development at AvTech. Today you received an email from Sean, one of AvTech’s product development managers, requesting a meeting with you about his immediate supervisor, Pat. Pat is a senior manager who reports directly to you and has been responsible for the release of a highly anticipated and potentially lucrative 

product that has only recently fallen behind schedule. AvTech employees are expected to report concerns through the chain of command. What will you do?

Your company may want to look for candidates that recognize they know little about what the issue is concerning, Sean’s past communication with Pat on the issue, and whether or not the product delay is related. The ideal candidate will also indicate the need to balance the needs of each of his employees (Sean and Pat), AvTech’s values, and the timely release of the new product. In addition, the ideal candidate should indicate the effects of the chosen actions. The sample actions you have identified (i.e., poor, adequate, and superior) are provided for the interviewer to record and evaluate the candidate’s response. 

Evaluating candidates on critical thinking will help your company differentiate talent on the most critical predictor of job success. Smart companies will start hiring smart leaders today. 




Menkes, J. (2005, November). Hiring for smarts. Harvard Business Review, 83(11), 100-109. 

Schmidt, F., & Hunter, J. (2004, January). General mental ability in the world of work: Occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 162-173.